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

Vamping Up the Lives of the Poets

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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Democracy in America: A Review of Peter Carey's "Parrot and Olivier in America"

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

Of Knickers and Men: Cincinnati-Area Vintage Base Ball at Sharon Woods Park

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

Childhood on Display: Two Hours at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

It was hotter than double hockey stick when I parked alongside a white picket fence in Hannibal, Missouri.  The thermometer in our minivan read 103 degrees, but I knew outside the cloudless sky and mid-western humidity were collaborating to make it feel ten degrees hotter.  Did I really want to step out of my air-conditioned vehicle and see where Mark Twain hung his knickers?

I did.

Hannibal, after all, is two stops down from nowhere, and I didn’t know when I’d be in the neighborhood again.  And I had been planning to visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum for weeks, talking it up to my kids, and reading all the Twain my eyes could stand to be ready for it.  I couldn’t let a little sun get in the way.   Besides, the white picket fence and the Mississippi River were calling out to me.  I was in Twain country.

Not that I needed a picket fence and a muddy river to tell me that.  The road to Hannibal had already taken me across the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge and past a giant caricature of Twain painted on a grassy hillside just inside the city limits.  Once in town, I saw no limit to Mark Twain souvenir shops and folksy billboards advertising Mark Twain theme parks like the Mark Twain Cave.  Twain was everywhere—even on the Pepsi machines.  It was incredible.  I had never seen a town capitalize on literature before.

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is a complex of some seven buildings more or less associated with the history of Mark Twain.  I say “more or less” because two of the buildings—the “Huckleberry Finn House” and the “Becky Thatcher House”—are dressed up and pitched to the public as the homes of Twain’s characters rather than the real folks who occupied them in Twain’s childhood.  It is only when you enter the houses and look around that you learn that they actually belonged to the people who inspired the fictional characters—Tom Blankenship and Laura Hawkins. 

It’s one of the stranger aspects of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home:  the way the tour melds fact and fiction.  For example, aside from the homes named after fictional characters, a room in the Interpretive Center—the first stop on the self-guided tour—seeks to draw definitive parallels between Twain’s childhood friends and neighbors and the characters in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. One prominent display even asks, “Was Tom Sawyer Mark Twain?”

Of course, I suspect that this blurring of fact and fiction is mostly for the kids who would rather hear about Tom Sawyer’s adventures than about some poor kid who wasn’t even named Mark Twain.  Let’s be honest: Injun Joe and buried treasure trumps a printer’s apprenticeship and a steamboat any day.

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.

Of course, the Justice of the Peace Office does provide the quirkiest exhibit the site has to offer.  In a backroom, visitors are met with a decrepit recreation of Twain’s eyewitness account of “Hannibal’s First Murder,” a stabbing that he happened upon once when he played hooky from school. The display depicts a young Twain recoiling in terror at the sight of a corpse, which is grotesquely splayed across the floor in a manner becoming any murdered body. 

Both the Twain figure and the murder victim are appallingly cracked and unconvincing as models—better-suited, perhaps, for a house-of-horrors than an educational venue—yet they lend a certain charm to the Boyhood Home and Museum.  In fact, for the rest of the week, all my two-year old daughter could talk about was the murdered “spooky guy.”

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. 

Of course, I’m not one who believes that video games and television are viciously destroying American childhoods.  But I do think the kind of childhood on display at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum is increasingly becoming a thing of the distant past.  Like me, my children love electronic media—movies, TV, the internet, video games—and that’s always going to be a part of their childhood.  Still, it’s too bad they live at a time when depictions of childhood—on the Disney Channel, on Nickelodeon—consist of little more than rote pranks and sarcasm, bubble-gum pop, and fart jokes.  Maybe I’m out-of-step with the times, but I take some satisfaction whenever my kids come in from outside and talk about their make-believe games of “Family” and “Spy Club.”  

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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Holy Shattered Cityscape, Batman!

Tell me this isn't a cool movie poster. Now if only they had hired someone other than Anne Hathaway to play Catwoman...

P.S.--Sorry for the corny reference to the 1960s Batman series in my post title.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tom, Huck, and Twain (Un-Shirted)

Before this year, I had never finished a novel by Mark Twain. Don't get me wrong: I had tried before--at least six or seven times in the last decade--but I could never get to that last page. The closest I ever came was with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I read about two-thirds of it, just enough to pass a quiz, and tossed it aside. Eventually, I sold my copy of it back to the university bookstore. Probably for two bucks and some change.

In a few weeks, though, my family and I will be visiting Hannibal, Missouri on our way to Branson, and I want to go there with at least some Twain titles in my quiver. I mean, I don't want to tell some pink-haired docent that I've never taken the time to read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. That would be embarrassing. Like trying to talk football without knowing what a first down is.

So, I've been reading Twain--or, more accurately, listening to recordings of Twain's books. Two weeks ago I finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and I'm about halfway through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Sam Clemens willing, I'll be able to get my hands on a recording of Twain's recently released autobiography before hitting the road.

Of course, what has surprised me most about Twain is how entertaining his books are when you hear them read aloud. Admittedly, this should not have surprised me. Twain is, after all, known for being a regular nineteenth-century maroon. But, one of the things that has always bothered me about his writing are those endless, seemingly irrelevant tangents.

They wear a reader out.

Listening to them on CD, though, has been a whole new experience. Part of it, I'm sure, can be blamed on the A+ performance of the actor reading the book. But I'd also like to think that part of it is Twain himself. The guy was a genius for comedy, and I'm beginning to see his tangents--especially those in Huckleberry Finn--are instances where he's really flexing his comedic muscles.

But the tangents aren't the only aspect of his novels that I'm finding entertaining. I also like how he presents childhood in a grandly Romanticized way. Just the way I remember it. When Tom Sawyer gets into a fight with a new boy in town, for example, Twain tosses realism aside and casts it as the incomparable life-or-death struggle all childhood scrapes are in the minds of young combatants:
In an instant both boys were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other's hair and clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered themselves with dust and glory.
Of course, the literary critic in me wants to say that passages like this one are just Twain's way of poking fun at Walter Scott and the popular melodramatic novels of his day. But the part of me that still remembers childhood wants to pat Twain on the back and tell him he got it all right.

So far, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is shaping up to be just as good, if not better, than Tom Sawyer. Of course, it's hard to compare the two books since they differ so much in style, tone, and content. By far, Huckleberry Finn is the most interesting character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Twain did well to write Huckleberry Finn in the first person. For one, it gives us the unfiltered musings of Huck, who lacks his friend's Romanticism. Huck sees and feels things with a clearer eye and deeper emotions than Tom. Notice, for instance, the maelstrom of feelings that come to him as he witnesses the tragic end of the Grangerford and Shepherdson feud:

All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns--the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river--both of them hurt--and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell ALL that happened--it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them--lots of times I dream about them.
I stayed in the tree till it begun to get dark, afraid to come down. Sometimes I heard guns away off in the woods; and twice I seen little gangs of men gallop past the log store with guns; so I reckoned the trouble was still a-going on. I was mighty downhearted; so I made up my mind I wouldn't ever go anear that house again, because I reckoned I was to blame, somehow. I judged that that piece of paper meant that Miss Sophia was to meet Harney somewheres at half-past two and run off; and I judged I ought to told her father about that paper and the curious way she acted, and then maybe he would a locked her up, and this awful mess wouldn't ever happened.
When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.
That's heavy stuff. In these three paragraphs, Huck experiences disgust, regret, fear, guilt, sadness, and gratitude. It's a emotional gamut that Twain executes in an entirely believable way, totally devoid of the tongue-in-cheek emotionalism of Tom Sawyer. And it's part of why Huckleberry Finn is so good.

So, like I said, I'm hoping that readings these books will make it so I don't come across as a total newb in front of the pink-haired docents in Hannibal.  Not that I care that much about what museum docents think about me. I just don't want to be one of those tourists who shows up thinking Mark Twain was a country singer or Colonel Sanders' older brother.

And if I do end up sounding like a newb, I'll just toss my pretensions aside and ask them what the heck the deal is with Twain's shirtless picture. I mean, seriously, it's not like they had Facebook back then.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dork Shirts

Dork shirts. Every guy has one.

I've had three in my life, unless you count the shirt I wore on the first day of kindergarten. It was royal blue with the word "BREAKIN'" emblazoned across the front in white puffy letters. I didn't have any break-dancing skills back then, but I wore it anyway with significant pride.

But that was before I knew what a dork was, so it probably doesn't count. Besides, it's one of those things that's dorky in retrospect, which also kind of disqualifies it from the running.

I purchased my first real dork shirt in 1994 in a Civil War bookstore in Nags Head, North Carolina. It was a gray XL t-shirt with the face of Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain centered within a circular gold frame flanked by Union and Confederate flags. At the time, I was in the middle of a serious Civil War phase, which had been inspired by both Ken Burns and the overly-long 1993 film Gettysburg. Chamberlain is a larger-than-life character in that film. Real hero material. I thought it would be cool to have a t-shirt with his face on it.

So I bought it, but never wore it in public. I kind of realized how dorky it was, and I was a little uncomfortable with wearing something with the Confederate flag on it. I didn't want anyone thinking I was, you know, racist. But I also didn't want to throw it away. So, I kept it in at the bottom of my t-shirt drawer. It's still there today.

My second dorky t-shirt had a caricature of Leo Tolstoy on it. I bought it at a Half Price Bookstore in 1997. I was a senior in high school and thought of myself as a kind of teenage champion of the working class. Bruce Springsteen music was the soundtrack of my life. I wore work boots and lots of denim everywhere I went. Tolstoy's peasant look gave off the right kind of vibe. What did it matter that I had only read 1/8th of War and Peace and nothing of Anna Karenina?

I'm not sure what happened to the Tolstoy shirt. I remember wearing it a few times to school and no one ever beat me up. Probably because they thought I was wearing a Santa Claus shirt.

Or they didn't give a crap.

Anyway, I probably threw the shirt out when I went to college. I was really into art back then, so it's possible that it got too stained with paint and India ink.

Yesterday I bought my most recent dork shirt. I was at Kohl's looking for a "cool" shirt when I came across a tan t-shirt with several Marvel Comics characters on it. It was pretty fly and on the discount rack ($4.00!). I grabbed it without hesitation. More than one cashier told me I got a great deal.

When the midnight showing of Captain America: The First Avenger rolls around, I know what I'll be wearing. Cap himself figures pretty prominently on the shirt. I'll be the envy of dorks everywhere. A real-life true believer.

Of course, I'm not sure how often I'll wear my Marvel Comics t-shirt. In reality, I'm not much of a t-shirt kind of guy anyway, especially when I wear pants. And my wife has already told me that I can't wear it with khaki shorts--apparently, tan shorts with a tan shirt looks lame--so that leaves me with a lot fewer options.

Dork shirts, I guess, are made to be bought and stuffed into drawers until dorky things like midnight movie premieres, Civil War reenactments, or comic book conventions make them socially acceptable to wear. That's fine with me. I get a kick out of buying them, not wearing them. Besides, I'm not really the kind that needs a  t-shirt to proclaim his dorkiness. I do that well enough on my own.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Kindle This, Dear Reader...

Last year I thought e-books were lame. Then my dad read Moby Dick on his phone's Kindle app. That made me think twice about them. I mean, Moby Dick is a big book. My old school copy of it is 637 pages. That's a lot of book to carry around.

Then, this past month, I read my first e-book using my PC's Kindle. The reason I went digital rather than paper was a matter of necessity. The book, Nephi Anderson's Dorian, is a rarity in Ohio. I really had not other choice.

And this is what I found out: you can do a lot with an e-reader. 

Basically, everything I hate about serious reading is made easier on the Kindle. For instance, I hate writing notes in small margins. On the Kindle, though, I have unlimited note-taking space. Big words are also a problem. When reading a low-tech book, I get annoyed whenever I have to pull the dictionary out to look up a word I don't know. On the Kindle, definitions are a click away.

I understand this goes against my predilections for all things old. But I'm never been a pure techno-phobe. I like technology when it makes my life better. I'm going to miss paper when it's gone. But I'm not going to miss the annoyance of a dictionary search. Sure, some people like looking words up in the dictionary. And I admit the dictionary makes great bathroom reading. But, really, its not a task I'll ever get sentimental about when its gone.

Ultimately, I still prefer paper books. For me, they are easier to skim. And I like the pleasure of flipping pages and reading random passages. I also like having a tangible object with the weight of 637 pages on its back. 

But e-readers are pretty cool. 

Especially when it comes to old big books, like Moby Dick, that take up a lot of space on the bookshelf. I mean, I like having my walls lined with books and bookshelves, but I don't necessarily want my books taking over my living space any more than they already have.

But I think its great that e-readers and websites like and are making nineteenth century texts more accessible to the tech-savvy masses. Already I've downloaded nearly all of the 19th century texts I need to read for my Ph.D. qualifying exams to my  PC's Kindle. All for free.

Of course, I think old school books are on the way out. In one hundred years, they'll have gone the way of the typewriter and rotary phone. 

That's not to say that neo-posthipsters won't still be printing them up as artsy novelty items in 2111.  But the folks in the e-reader industry have done a really good job reinventing the book.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Got Grit?: A Review of the History Channel's "Gettysburg"

This Memorial Day, the History Channel broadcast a new two-hour documentary on the battle of Gettysburg. According to its official website, the film is supposed to "[strip] away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light--a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future."

Tell me that's not high ambition.

Since I don't don't have the History Channel, I learned about this film belatedly through Civil War Memory, a frequently cranky Civil War blog I follow. Its take on the film was decidedly negative, but I wanted to watch it all the same. I mean, I write a lot of reviews of things, but I rarely pay attention to reviews myself. Plus, I've been interested in the battle of Gettysburg since my first visit there as a kid. I've been back to it several times since then, including a week-long visit for my honeymoon, and I am always amazed at how much of it is still new to me.

(Yes, my wife--who is not a Civil War buff--actually agreed to honeymoon in Gettysburg! That's love, folks!)

I had the opportunity to watch the film last night as my family and I house-sat for my in laws. (We got to watch it on their massive big screen TV--which I have found makes even lousy movies good.) Of course, I didn't quite know what to expect from the film. I hadn't seen too many promos about it, but everything I had read on it mentioned how realistic and gritty it was supposed to be. I guess I had high expectations about it.

Also, the fact that it had Ridley and Tony Scott attached to it as executive producers didn't lower the bar any. I half expected Russell Crowe to show up and lead a charge.

Sadly, Gettysburg is a disappointment. In general, I'm not a fan of History Channel documentaries, because they tend to take the flashy, sexy approach to history. When it comes to priorities, their primary one is to entertain, not inform. I admit that this isn't necessarily a bad approach. I just like my documentaries to do both. (Or, if they're meant merely to entertain me, I want them to have goofy storylines involving ghosts or cryptids.)

One of my main problems with Gettysburg is its panel of authorities. Like most documentaries of this kind, it brings in several personalities who are supposed to provide expert insight into the battle. With the exception of James McPherson, I had never heard of any of them. Most of them, it seemed, came not from universities, but from non-academic Civil War organizations. It also featured a few authors of popular history and maybe one or two teenagers.

Everyone gestured a lot. One guy had spiky blond hair. A passionate few even seemed more enthusiastic than Dora the Explorer on speed. I'm surprised none of them jumped out of the TV screen and grabbed me by the collar.

The overall production value on the film was also lower than I expected it to be. I've been to a few Civil War reenactments in my day, and this film was definitely a step or two above the typical reenactment. But this film still had the feel of of a bunch of good ol' boys playing dress up. I guess I wanted to feel like I was watching a real battle with this film. But that didn't happen. A "visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience" it was not.

That said, this film did like its wounds. About every two minutes there was a close-up of a bullet striking flesh. Always with a lot of blood splatter. I think the filmmakers were trying to show what it really looked like to get shot during the Civil War. By drawing attention to it time and time again, though, they ended up doing just the opposite. It was like watching the same special effect over and over again, but from different angles.

I had a few other problems with the film. With only a two-hour time frame, it had to leave a lot of the battle out. I think its overview of the second day of the battle was particularly inadequate. To do the battle justice, though, the film would have had to run at least six hours. Of course, that's the sort of thing you can do on cable television. Three two-hour episodes over the course of three nights. A History Channel Premiere Event.

But I guess the budget didn't allow for that. The cost of fake blood must have gone up.

I also didn't learn anything new from the film. Aside from the grittier-than-usual recreations of the battle, which really weren't that gritty, Gettysburg seemed no different from any other History Channel documentary. Overall, the story it presented was too basic, too bare-bones. Originality wasn't one of its virtues. Nor did it change how I thought about the battle.

Which is too bad because I was really hoping that it would.

Note: You can now watch Gettysburg online at

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Filling the Void...

I'm starting Fenimore's Ghost to fill a void left by The Low-Tech World when it became my soapbox for all things Mormon fiction.

Back in the day (i.e. up until last year), I used to write a blog that was more eclectic in nature. I'd write reviews of movies, non-Mormon books, tourist attractions, and the like. I'd also write up some witty social commentary now and again. I had fun with it.

The problem with The Low-Tech World 1.0, though, was that it didn't really attract readers. It's random sampler approach to blogging, I guess, kept it from finding a consistent audience.

Not so with The Low-Tech World 2.0. Newly focused, it has a following I'm pleased with.

Still, I miss the random sampler approach. I'm a guy with interests that go beyond Mormon fiction. I want this blog to reflect that.

That said, I want to rein in the focus a little on Fenimore's Ghost. Rather than trying to tackle everything, I want to focus the blog as much as possible on the weird ways the twenty-first century collides with the nineteenth. It's one of those things I think a lot about. I always try to keep at least one eye open for books, movies, reenactments, historical sites, and tourist attractions that take on the 1800s.

Of course, if something not related to the nineteenth century comes up, and its interesting enough to write about, I won't hesitate to post it.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Best and Worst Reads of 2010

It's a new year, so I again need to sum up my reading experience of the past year. In 2010, I read 54 full length works. Included in the count are novels, short story collections, non-fiction books, plays, and screenplays.

Although I have included them in the count, some books are texts that I have read before. I have not considered them for my best and worst list since they are already among my favorites and have been numbered on lists past.

Here are my lists. I present them with no justification. If you would like to argue for or against any of them, please feel free to do so in the comments section. I doubt this will happen, of course, but the option remains open.

Five Best Fiction Books:
1. Ethan Frome--Edith Wharton
2. Long After Dark--Todd Robert Petersen
3. Mrs. Dalloway--Virginia Woolf
4. Tinkers--Paul Harding
5. Song of Solomon--Toni Morrison

Five Best Non-Fiction Books:
1. Blue Latitudes--Tony Horwitz
2. The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, 1832-1839
3. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory--Edward J. Larson
4. A Short History of Nearly Everything--Bill Bryson
5. Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood--Douglas Thayer

Five Worst Books:
1. March--Geraldine Brooks
2. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter--Seth Grahame-Smith
3. Breaking Dawn--Stephenie Meyer
4. The Guinea Pig Diaries--A. J. Jacobs
5. Of Mice and Men--John Steinbeck