Monthly Archives: November 2010

Art lesson

Maybe it’s because I spent so many years reading magazines with ads for the Famous Artists School — Draw ‘Binky’! — but this thing has been cracking me up all night. Go say hello to Alexia.

Being happy is the best revenge

This video from Pixar Animation Studios is one of the most moving things you’ll ever watch, if you haven’t watched it already. While the video directly addresses gay teenagers, I think its message applies to straight teens as well. It goes beyond sexuality to offer reassurance about the future, and the young listener’s place in that future.

I’ve often thought that telling high school kids “these are the best years of your life” is not only a lie, but a pretty nasty thing to say to people who are for the most part still trying to figure themselves out. The choices that reveal character — friends, lovers, spouses, careers, passions — are still in the future. But teenagers have a hard time maintaining that kind of perspective, and adults don’t help when they turn kids into vehicles for nostalgia about their own teen years.

As an adult, I’ve taken my share of lumps and made plenty of bad decisions — even a few good ones! — about lovers and career moves, but not even when times were darkest did I ever want to relive my adolescence. The real juice of life comes with adulthood. Maybe you’re having fun as a teenager, maybe you’re not, but either way the message is the same — it gets better. The best is yet to come.

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Growing up in public

Standing in line for the midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I realized it had been over a decade since I’d been able to catch a movie with the hardcore faithful. The last time I was able to do that was opening night for The Phantom Menace, and do I really need to tell you the antics of the diehard fan crowd ended up being more entertaining than the limp noodles on the screen? Though the Loews cineplex was mobbed — I think five screens were playing simultaneously — and the excitement in the crowd was palpable, it was a very restrained enthusiasm. Maybe everybody was keeping something in abeyance for July, when the second installment of Deathly Hallows will hit theaters and the movie curtain will come down on the decade of watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione grow up in public.

I found myself waiting at the ticket kiosk behind a red-headed woman in a Slytherin robe. “Home field advantage?” I asked her, and she laughed. “I’m just bummed that I’m not going to be able to use this robe much longer,” she said. Turned out she did appearances at Potter-related events.

“At least with Harry Potter you got your money’s worth,” I pointed out. “Eight movies, all together. If you’d bought a hobbit costume, you’d have been done after only three movies.”

“I did get a costume for that,” she said. “Only it was a Legolas costume. I was very convincing with the bow.”

I’m sure she was. When The Hobbit makes its long overdue appearance in the plexes, I hope she’ll be at Loew’s on opening night.

One of the things I liked best about Deathly Hallows the novel was the big-hearted generosity of J.K. Rowling’s storytelling. She made sure every important character got a proper send-off — even the appalling Dudley Dursley was allowed to show a few glints of humanity as he said farewell to Harry. Draco Malfoy, the most odious little creep outside a Roald Dahl novel, was shown wrestling with stirrings of a wan, barely functioning conscience that led him to save Harry’s bacon at one crucial moment, then attempt to fry it in another. The second biggest mistake committed by the Half-Blood Prince film was to shorten the lead-up to Dumbledore’s death. Not only did Rowling’s scene show the headmaster’s coolness and courage in a desperate situation, it also certified that he thought Draco had a soul worth saving.

That soul is glimpsed fleetingly in Deathly Hallows the film, and while Dudley’s big moment is absent, the film makes up for it with a quietly devastating scene in which Hermione protects her parents by surreptitiously removing all memories of her existence. The sight of Hermione disappearing from years of family snapshots, and the blend of grief and resolve on Emma Watson’s face, demonstrates how high the stakes have become far better than the umpteenth Death Eater attack.

Part one of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows looks great and manages to handle the immense challenges posed by Rowling’s novel capably, if not always very gracefully. But what really impressed me was the silence.  Given enough elbow room to tell the story, rather than scramble to hit all the relevant plot points within a two-hour window, Deathly Hallows allows significant stretches of time to pass without an explosion, an action beat, or even background noise. The novel’s long, pensive passages in which Team Potter can only hide out and try to regroup in the face of Voldemort’s near-total victory, get their equivalent on screen, which is downright revolutionary for a big-ticket blockbuster like this.

I can only wish Half-Blood Prince had been given a two-film adaptation like this; alone among the latter Potter novels, it earned its bulk with storytelling muscle and a wealth of necessary detail. But the good news about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is that it honors its source material and sets the stage for — dare we hope — a great resolution. The young actors who devoted their childhoods to embodying these characters and maturing along with them will, I think, be able to look back over these films and feel their time was well spent. I remember walking out of The Return of the King feeling a little pang of regret that a fourth film wasn’t on the horizon. I don’t know if part two of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will give me the same feeling, but I’m prepared to be surprised.

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All ‘Hallows’ eve

I’ll be taking Dances With Mermaids to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My money is on the first flick ending with the escape from the Malfoy basement and the belated discovery that Dobby has been fatally wounded. That’s my prediction. Remember, I forecast Snape as the tragic hero of the series. On the other hand, I also predicted Ron Weasley would buy the farm. Right or wrong, I’m expecting to have a good time.

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The ‘Horses’ she rode in on

Patti Smith just won the National Book Award for her memoir, Just Kids. That’s big news around here.  I’ve been listening to her records for decades, ever since Horses baffled, intrigued, and captivated me a few weeks after its release,  and her recent live recording of The Coral Sea was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever heard. Maybe Just Kids will get the kind of retrospective fact-checking and deflation that Bob Dylan’s Chronicles received, but it’s a terrific record of an artist making her way in the world, assembling the pieces of her identity, and deciding just what it is she’s really good at.

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What kind of a spoilsport would scoff at NaNoWriMo? Apparently there are some snobs out there who are doing just that, and I can only marvel at their bad form. The first rule of writing is to finish what you’ve started, and if National Novel Writing Month helps people finish their novels, that’s all to the good. I’m of the opinion that involvement in a long-term creative project carries personal benefits regardless of whether the finished manuscript is publishable. As Lawrence Block once observed, your odds of getting recruited to a professional baseball team are miniscule, but that doesn’t mean you were wasting your time during those afternoons playing sandlot ball. The first novel I brought to completion was literally an exalted experience, one I wouldn’t have traded for anything. Everyone should have that kind of experience, and if NaNoWriMo gets them there — great.

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A saga at a time

My own book collection served as the nucleus of Nighthawk Books, and while the store’s collection has since multiplied by several orders of magnitude (or so it seems when I have to reshelve), every now and then somebody will buy one of my old books. That doesn’t always bring on a pang, but there are times when I inwardly sigh as I ring up a sale. That happened the other day when a customer bought one of the Icelandic sagas from the Medieval Literature section.

Actually, I had a small run on the sagas shortly after the store opened in February. Egil’s Saga flew out the door the first week in March, followed in short order by the Eyrbyggja Saga, Grettir’s Saga, the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Orkneyinga saga. They’re leaving the store, a saga at a time. Sad to see them go. So far, at least, nobody’s come in to buy the Laxdaela Saga, which shares space in my heart with Egil’s Saga.

Of all the sagas, Laxdaela comes closest to working like a conventional novel, though if you read it that way sooner or later you will fetch up against its inimitably Icelandic preoccupations. For example, some of the most intriguing episodes concern a brutal, nasty-minded farmer named Hrapp, who terrorizes his neighbors and family. Feeling death near, Hrapp orders his wife to have his body buried standing up beneath the threshold of his farmhouse:

After that Hrapp died, and all was done as he said, for Vigdis did not dare do otherwise. And as evil as he had been to deal with in his life, just so he was by a great deal more when he was dead, for he walked again a great deal after he was dead. People said that he killed most of his servants in his ghostly appearances. He caused a great deal of trouble to those who lived near, and the house of Hrappstead became deserted. Vigdis, Hrapp’s wife, betook herself west to Thorstein Swart, her brother. He took her and her goods in. And now things went as before, in that men went to find Hoskuld, and told him all the troubles that Hrapp was doing to them, and asked him to do something to put an end to this. Hoskuld said this should be done, and he went with some men to Hrappstead, and has Hrapp dug up, and taken away to a place near to which cattle were least likely to roam or men to go about. After that Hrapp’s walkings- again abated somewhat.

I love that “somewhat.”

Stephen King would have milked that anecdote for a shelf-busting novel, at least four hundred pages, throwing in the brief mention of the fact that all those who inherited Hrapp’s considerable wealth came to bad ends. He’d also have plenty of fun with the seal with uncannily human-seeming eyes that appears linked to the drowning of a family ferrying itself across a fjord to Hrapp’s old haunting grounds. But the Laxdaela author simply tosses these incidents off and gets the important task of reciting names and genealogies.

But none of that matters for anyone attuned to the singular music of the sagas, and Laxdaela gives us the  fascinating character of Gudrun, a beautiful and willful woman who falls in love with the handsome Kjartan, only to marry his foster-brother Bolli out of a mixture of confusion and spite. When Kjartan takes a wife, Gudrun pulls strings and cooks up plots that get him killed. She lives to a ripe and regretful old age, with four husbands behind her and two sons, one of them named Bolli after the man she goaded into killing his foster-brother.

I want to adapt Laxdaela as a film, just so I can see this scene:

Now Gudrun began to grow very old, and lived in such sorrow and grief as has lately been told. She was the first nun and recluse in Iceland, and by all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land. It is told how once upon a time Bolli came to Holyfell, for Gudrun was always very pleased when he came to see her, and how he sat by his mother for a long time, and they talked of many things.

Then Bolli said, “Will you tell me, mother, what I want very much to know? Who is the man you have loved the most?”

Gudrun answered, “Thorkell was the mightiest man and the greatest chief, but no man was more shapely or better endowed all round than Bolli. Thord, son of Ingun, was the wisest of them all, and the greatest lawyer; Thorvald I take no account of.”

Then said Bolli, “I clearly understand that what you tell me shows how each of your husbands was endowed, but you have not told me yet whom you loved the best. Now there is no need for you to keep that hidden any longer.”

Gudrun answered, “You press me hard, my son, for this, but if I must needs tell it to any one, you are the one I should first choose thereto.”

Bolli bade her do so. Then Gudrun said, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

“Now,” answered Bolli, “I think the whole truth is told,” and said she had done well to tell him what he so much had yearned to know.

I always imagine Gudrun staring across the waves while some great, melancholy Bernard Herrmann-esque music purls on the soundtrack. I’m pretty sure Howard Shore would be up to the task.

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Friday finds

Doonesbury stays as timely as ever, doesn’t it? Back then, it was the stem cells keeping Dubya awake; now it’s Kanye West, but the creepy disassociation from reality remains the same, and Garry Trudeau nailed it. For a comic strip to have been so consistently good while remaining surprising and unpredictable is amazing, and this appreciation by Garry Wills gets at all the reasons why.

Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam — he’s still a theocratic creep.

Before you send out that fantasy manuscript, run it past this Fantasy Novelist’s Exam.

Allen Barra correctly praises Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove as the great American Western, and correctly downgrades the overrated Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian. But what about John Williams and Butcher’s Crossing?  What about Frederick Manfred and the “Buckskin Man” cycle? I’ll take Lord Grizzly or Conquering Horse over Ghost Town or Welcome to Hard Times.

This is sick.

Wanna hear Gilgamesh read in Babylonian? Here you go.

Podcast alert! An excellent conversation with Noam Chomsky, the American Socrates. From fanboy to filmmaker: a talk with Joe Dante, director of The Howling, Gremlins, and The Hole. The natural history of the unicorn.

The 100 Greatest Horror Movie Quotes, as compiled by Harry Hanrahan. I was pleased to see my favorite lines from Hellraiser, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And The Haunting — classy! All that’s missing is the conversation between Herbert West and Dr. Hill’s head in Re-Animator.

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The art of noises

Bill Millard, a guy who once wrote a rock music column for me in another place, another time, and another newspaper, instantly identified himself as a long-lost blood brother of mine when he admitted to having (a) an abiding love for the music of Pere Ubu, and (b) friends who did not. One of his friends went so far as to say that the two most terrifying words in the English language were “Pere” and “Ubu.” Hermano! He’s moved on to his own rock band, Shanghai Love Motel, and I’m trying to get some more books published, but the Ubu link will always be there.

When the debut Ubu album (debubu?), The Modern Dance, came out in 1978, a high school buddy who’d followed my changing musical tastes through the import edition of The Clash , Rocket to Russia, Another Green World, Fingerprince,and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols rolled his eyes and said “No way” after sitting through the industrial screech that opens “Non-Alignment Pact” and the crowd noises that serve as the chorus for “The Modern Dance.”  It was the shrieking horns on “Laughing,” combined with Dave Thomas’ nasal bleat, that finally did him in. No judgment on my part, but I still love the deliberately unlovely thing.

I mention all this as a lead-in for Glenn Kenny’s review/reminiscence about The Modern Dance, which evokes the sheer excitement of being a hardcore music fan in the very late Seventies, when the punks and New Wavers were coming into their own and getting record deals, and it seemed like a must-listen album was coming out every other day. The only comparable period, for me anyway, would be the late Eighties and early Nineties, when hip hop was exploding with great, original groups having their say on vinyl, and I was racing to keep up with Public Enemy, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Boogie Down Productions, Ice-T, and the Jungle Brothers. (Even Straight Outta Compton and Ice Cube’s first solo record were part of the excitement, until gangsta rap rolled in like a tsunami of Agent Orange.) It also brings to mind the last time I watched Ubu perform, when the screeching that opens “Non-Alignment Pact” drew the kind of response another crowd would reserve for the opening  notes of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Time to put some tracks from The Tenement Year on the bookstore sound system.


A friend of a friend

The woman first showed up at the bookstore about seven months ago, asking about mysteries. She was buying some books for a friend, someone who liked detective and crime stories. We talked for a bit about what her friend might like: suspenseful and twisty, but not hardcore violent. I suggested she try something by Mary Higgins Clark, and she left with a copy of On the Street Where You Live, which had the added benefit of a Jersey Shore setting.

She turned up again a few weeks later, happy to announce that her friend loved the Clark book and wanted some more. She left with a small stack of Clark titles: A Cry in the Night, Stillwatch, and a couple of others I don’t recall.

It was on her third visit that she told me her friend was stricken with a terminal illness and found great comfort in reading. We talked a while, and instead of going for more Mary Higgins Clark she went with a Sue Grafton title.

It’s been about a month since that last visit. I hope her friend is doing okay, and I hope she is, too.

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