Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Room to Imagine: The Hobbit, Movie Musicals, and Translation

One of my "in real life" passions is for theater, especially for musicals. They're often silly: most people don't break into song when we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotion (whether stressful or positive).

So when I heard the recent announcement that Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit would be a trilogy, I started thinking about recent musical adaptions I've seen (The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Sweeney Todd) and ones I've skipped (Mama Mia, Rock of Ages).

A stretch? Not for me.

The thing that a stage does, with curtains and cardboard houses and lighting instruments suspended from the walls and ceiling, is demand a suspension of disbelief. The cinema doesn't (or rarely) ask for the same level of disbelief- a production on stage will include errors, alterations, and imperfections that movie won't. The version of a film that makes it past the cutting room is (almost always) the director's vision.

Reading is much more like a trip to the theater than a trip to the cinema, which is, in part, why even film critics agree that most every film adaptation pales in comparison to the book. In reading, we snap to attention at words, paragraphs, pages almost without understanding how; we can skim for pages when suddenly we're drawn a level deeper into the book. In film, the director guides us, makes it harder for us to miss the nuance- often, the director gets so heavy handed that we wish we could miss a little (I'm looking at you, Dark Knight Rises).

Which brings me to The Hobbit, which I can't imagine warranting a narrative arc equivalent of the entire Lord of the Rings.

Monday, July 30, 2012

For the Comfort of Automated Phrases by Jane Cassady, Book Review

from Sibling Rivalry Press
Jane Cassady's For the Comfort of Automated Phrases was released this month by Sibling Rivalry Press. It is a collection of poems about human failing, about the connections we want but cannot have. It is about trying to make those connections anyways.

This is how the poems unfold: slowly, with a cascade of details to parse, because one of them is a key to unlocking everything else that came before and that follows.

The third section of the title poem is written in the second person, to someone who needs to be dressed:

You have one shoe on.
Attempts at the other make you shriek
and cry and lay down and as I hug you,
you have the strongest elbows.

Suddenly the autistic boy mentioned in the second section of the poem takes on new relevance. The first section's road trip through America, which we're told God created on the third day, is something much bigger and longer than we might have originally signed up for.

Cassady's writing is full of love misplaced or misdirected, because she is willing to give so much love in every direction. There are love poems to cities, to states, to tour guides, to parents who don't get it but keep trying, to jobs that don't deserve our work, and to women dancing in a Zumba class.

Life is messy, she says. Too many stray signals to misunderstand. But keep trying because sometimes, like in the book's final poem, an ode to the impossible could have been To Amy and the Rained-Out Science Carnival, even though we don't get the thing we set out for, sometimes life gives us something just as special.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Listening for Earthquakes by Jasmine Dreame Wagner, Book Review

Listening for Earthquakes, Jasmine Dreame Wagner's book of poems published by Caketrain Journal and Press, is a love letter set to everything poetry can be. Alternating stretches of prose with stanza poetry, Wagner must be read like Whitman- the clang of the words mean something to the ears, but the sight of the words on the page are designed to have just as much impact. Wagner delights in shades of ink, and in words located on lines in ways that can't be spoken or performed. You have to see the book, which is itself as much a work of art as the words it contains.

My favorite poem in the collection, "There Is No Part of the Body That Hasn't Been Pierced," demands that the entire book be turned sideways to be read. The Beatitudes that pour off those pages are an affirming and often mind-bending collision of words.

    Blessed are the firecrackers, cherry bombs, snapdragons, for they are 

        the waterworks, sweaty palms, calendulas of sudden vision.
In that poem, Wagner rolls on, exclaiming (not asking with a question mark; these sentence end with a period) of the sun:

    ...how is it not unlike a feather headdress on a mule...

    ...a silk-bound door...

    ...how is it not a stoplight...
from Caketrain Press
Wagner's approach to definition is through the impossible- prove to me the negative, she says over and over again, and then I will be willing to see the world your way.

Listening for Earthquakes is a book about the world as a canvas, about the painful painting we do in it. It is a book filled with bridges and doors and pathways marked by missed connections.

One thing more I love about Wagner's book is that she is not afraid of her stupendous vocabulary. It has been a long time since a book made me read it with a reference at hand, but Listening for Earthquakes is that kind of book. Hepafilter. Filigree. Ameliorates.

Don't read passively, she says. Turn it sideways, crease the spine. Maybe even put the book down so you can grasp at the meaning.

Book 28 of my book-a-week challenge.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato

Did I just have a delicious BLT for lunch with my lovely wife, featuring tomatoes we grew in our ridiculously overgrown garden?

Oh yes.

How awesome is my life?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Vietnamerica by GB Tran, Book Review

from here
I read graphic novels in hopes of finding ones as good as GB Tran's Vietnamerica.

Vietnamerica is not an easy read, visually nor narratively. I suspect that is why it didn't win the Eisner Award it was nominated for at Comic-Con earlier this week.

Tran's drawing style is broad, really
too universal. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that drawn characters fall on a matrix ranging from the universal (think of a smiley face, that could represent anyone) to the specific (imagine a photo-realistic image of someone you know). Tran's characters weren't quite distinct enough to tell apart at times, especially as the story swirls around in time from the French occupation of Vietnam, to the American invasion, to the present day. I loved the way Tran wove together the generational decisions that led him to his American life, but I doubt that most readers have my patience for being confused.

Some of this confusion mirrored a disconnectedness that Tran admits feeling- because his family was not a family of story-tellers, much of the background that colors the decision making is lost to time.

The part of Vietnamerica I enjoyed the most was its open-endedness. I had a choir teacher who used to say "Art is like what life is like." Most acclaimed graphic novel memoirs (I thinking of you, Maus and FunHome and Persepolis) feature some sort of guiding structure, a motif that gives order to reminiscence. Tran's structure is his family, as their words and actions circle back to us: choices were made so the family could survive. We start the book with that reality, and there are no big revelations later on. Vietnamerica reinforces that simple truth over and over again.

Book 27 of my book-a-week challenge.

Happy Friday

Off to see Dark Knight tonight, and tomorrow I'll cross Citipark Citi Field off my list of MLB stadiums to visit.

Happy Friday!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: Falcons on the Floor by Justin Sirois

I was recently sent a copy of Justin Sirois' Falcons on the Floor by the kind folks at Publishing Genius Press.

Sirois pulls no punches, sending us straight into Fallujah on the eve of the siege that marked one of the bloodiest chapters of the Iraq War.

This was not a place I wanted to go. I never served; I opposed that war even as my friends and family members found themselves in places I followed on the nightly news. Sirois dragged me there with a compellingly simple story: two friends walk out of Fallujah the night the fighting begins to try to find someplace safer. What Sirois did masterfully was create two friends with many personal, political, and moral differences. The tension that filled their walk across the desert kept the book marching forward.

Sirois' willingness to change forms was a key to winning me over. After a prolog set in America, the first section of the novel hovers in a limited omniscience following Salim and Khalil. The second section is where the novel takes off, when we move from the more traditional narration to an epistolary style seen through the computer diary entries written by Salim during the journey.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Happy Friday

This week, with Muppets:

Can the frog tap dance?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Character Death

The death of a character is, for me, the trickiest piece of artistry an author can undertake.

Mainly, it's been done too much and too well too many other times. You can't kill a character without echoing other deaths. I remember laughing out loud when Clint Eastwood's character dies at the end of Gran Torino, because it was so heavily foreshadowed. He even fell to the ground with his arms outstretched, like he was on a cross.

The same way Jay Gatsby dies in The Great Gatsby.

The real flaw I find in most character deaths, and I'm thinking here especially of books I've read lately like Cutting for Stone and The Art of Fielding, is that the author has spend hundreds of pages investing a relationship with tension and conflict, and then in the final scenes lets that conflict go.

It is natural to remember people fondly after their death. We don't speak ill of the dead, and I think that's a credit to the angels of our nature. I remember when my grandfather died, one of my aunts (by marriage) saying something along the lines of "he was a saint!" Well, it's nice to remember him that way, but he had a feud with his brother-in-law that was so vehement that the two didn't like to speak to each other.

I've got a couple book review percolating that involve stories in which characters die, so I've been thinking about this a lot. Only one of the deaths was very well done. Does that mean that for the others it was the author's easy out from a too-complicated piece of plot, or is that a sign of what a feat of artistry the well-done death is?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Writing Life, Reading Life

Sunday involved my perfect morning.

I got up before my wife, and spent the morning reading the newspaper on the back porch before the day got too hot. I'm captivated by the Supreme Court's health care decision, and by the reaction to it.

As I was reading, I was reminded how little blogging I've done lately. I feel a little guilty about it.

I know that it is the writer's standard response to claim to have not written enough or well enough lately. I know that this claim is two-parts deflection and two-parts ego. I've claimed it all my writing life.

If I am not writing enough, it is because I know I am capable of more, of better. "Don't judge me by my output; judge my potential."