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Washtenaw Flaneurade
1 December 2010
Bookworm Hamsterdam
Now Playing: White Cowbell Oklahoma--"Get On Get Down"

There's been a recent online trend of "top lists," taking our apparent human tendency to compile lists and applying it to favorite movies, TV shows, songs, etc. The book lists have understandably been around longer than most, and a spate of British "100 books you can't live without" compilations (the BBC, the Guardian) were recently cited by one or more friends on Facebook. Noticing that the list included books by disgraced (in a just world) Detroit sports columnist Mitch Albom, icily uninvolved Mississippi-born phenom Donna Tartt (The Secret History was, at times, spellbindingly awful), and Dan Brown (enough said, although I'm surprised the British people didn't initiate a class action suit en masse for defamation in The Da Vinci Code's character of Leigh Teabing), I figured it was probably just as well that people came up with their own lists, and others agreed with me, especially if you check out this superb rundown of one man's essential literature.

In trying to think of mine, I found that I kept revisiting my own history of reading. I started very early (my first prose work Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon) and went through a number of genre manias--if you'd asked me my favorite book at seven, it might have been one of the pocket-sized biographies of explorers written by Adele DeLeeuw and illustrated by Nathan Goldstein; if at twelve, almost certainly something by Jules Verne. I went through the "high classic" phase in high school, throwing myself into what was known in those days as the "Dead White Male" "school" of literature, and only started to branch out in college into the literature of other cultures and other genres (science fiction in particular). Working in a bookstore, however obnoxious, after college only broadened my reading range and grad school not only failed to constrain my outside reading, but also enriched it through a wider understanding of what constituted "literature" (a colleague of mine's grade in his historiography class suffered because he refused to write a two-page paper on the excerpt of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution we studied*--I still find that a profoundly silly move). My growing interest in the "weird fiction" movement of the early 20th century helped to break down the barriers, as did the example of British film historian Darrell Buxton, who seemed to view the great, canonical film classics and, say, anything "starring" Robin Askwith through the same critical lens.

The process and examples cited above essentially destroyed the partitions I'd been encouraged to erect in high school and college between high and low art, but not necessarily in a leveling way. I still don't contest the greatness of many of the works I studied in lit class (although I do consider any time I spent on Spenser's The Faerie Queene to be time wasted, the genocidal old fart); rather my concern is with the "lesser" works, some of which rise to be classics in their own right, seen through my own lens. To take a couple of examples from below (spoilers!), A Wizard of Earthsea or The Black Arrow (or, to a lesser extent, Scaramouche) have character development just as compelling, for me, as anything in Hamlet. I know that I'd rather read any of those three instead of Hamlet, and not simply for escapist reasons (indeed, there's little that's truly escapist about any of the three mentioned). Hamlet's still a marvelous work (though I knew more than one English teacher who didn't care for it), but so are those other three. One of the reasons I look askance at some of the stuff we're asked to take seriously as modern American literature is that there's still a stuffy attitude towards what's known as "genre" literature from the powers that be, even after the crossover success of authors like Tolkien or C.S. Lewis (there were times when, reading Laura Miller's The Magician's Book--her "re-examination" of The Chronicles of Narnia--you could hear her grit her teeth through the pages). That's why I don't really like or trust, say, McSweeney's and their occasional anthological attempts to "revive" genre fiction; it carried the powerful whiff of "adults" revisiting the "playground," when there are many who consider that playground, at times, a more accurate reflection of the world and adulthood than the "adult" world with which we're constantly presented in the media (their "humor" collection was appalling, too). Thoughts such as these influenced my list all the way through.

I stuck with novels. I've never been a big reader of drama or poetry, and can't remember the last book of poetry I read (last play was Harold Pinter's magnificent Betrayal, in preparation for a friend's performance I couldn't attend due to unforeseen work-related causes). I used to write a fair amount of poetry, but haven't done so in probably a decade; prose was and is definitely my medium. I started drawing up a list, but kept getting stuck on fifty. There's no real reason I need to keep with a hundred. My reading habits have suffered in recent years due to my own writing; I made the somewhat trepidatious decision that I'd read enough and needed to start writing my own stuff. This hasn't been a hard and fast rule; I've kept reading, of course, but nowhere near as much as I used to, when I habitually read about a hundred books a year. In recent years, too, I'd started reading more (non-history) non-fiction, to the extent where I could probably think about a non-fiction list (but maybe in a couple of years, not now). As for the novels themselves, the criteria were necessarily elastic. The Count of Monte Cristo, for example, has been my favorite novel for a good two decades, but the precise purpose for the others' inclusion vary wildly. Some were profoundly influential, some call to mind particular times in my life, some simply carried me away, some had unimprovable setpieces at certain points in the book, and some were the best representation under the circumstances of authors I love who wouldn't be included otherwise. It's interesting, too, for me to note how many of these novels have become "primers" of mine in writing my own fiction (and some have mainly been included for that reason). So the list is a bit... methodologically shambolic, but it's mine, and I think it's a good one (although with the exception of #1, there's no particular order to these). Get ready for lots of words like "hypnotic," "engrossing," "indelible," "riveting," "affectionate," etc. Read and enjoy, and go forth and compile.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas pere: My friend Karen loves it too, but called it a "trashy romance novel." It could be described as such, I guess, but I think she did put a lot of stock in those aformentioned partitions that I've discarded. To start, I'm simply going to direct the reader here (along with a review of the 1998 miniseries with Gerard Depardieu--once you read the novel, you'll realize how ridiculous those words should appear). It's long (in the unabridged version), frequently schmaltzy and overripe, many of the "good" female characters are little better than dolls, and heavily reliant on concidence. It's French, though, and the Victorian cliches and mores (then in their relative infancy--the book was serialized in the early 1840s) have that little twist to them that makes it an entertainingly offbeat experience. The dominating theme of revenge, and the near superheroic title character, undeniably imprinted themselves on my literary--and general--subconscious, and probably influenced my own work in ways I can hardly guess. Add to that the tremendous political and social ferment that went on in France at the time (probably more acceptably--from a critical sense--rendered in Hugo's admittedly magnificent Les Miserables)--the book runs from the Hundred Days of 1815 to the height of Louis-Philippe's Orleanist reign (the latter the apex of modernity to Dumas' audience), and you have a literary experience that, to me, is more sensual and intoxicating than any eternal sonnet.

2. Flashman at the Charge, George Macdonald Fraser: G-Mac's bullying Victorian rogue (hilariously lifted from Thomas Hughes' pious Tom Brown's Schooldays) figured in a number of exciting, informative, politically incorrect (occasionally gratuitously and reachingly so, in step with G-Mac's rabidly reactionary tendencies) adventures, but my favorite has to be his account of the Crimean War, exploits as a POW in Czarist Russia and then as a reluctant freedom fighter in Central Asia, the latter empire's "Wild West." The brio, sex, and humor are still there, but so are a chilling account of one of history's most famous military disasters and a surprisingly affecting reflection by our antihero on his own nature. Well worth seeking out.

3. Wise Children, Angela Carter: Carter's glorious late-career triumph is both a fictional history of south London and and an affectionate love letter to the trust and bonds between two heroically daffy sisters, who find their particular odd talents put to the test as never before as they have to save an ungrateful family and unravel a number of long-standing mysteries. I need to read this again; it was a joy to see the plot strands whip here and there with perfect precision, like one went through a really awesome carnival ride. The Bloody Chamber may seem more germane to my own fictional interests, but... really, not much beats Wise Children. Except The Count of Monte Cristo.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Jon Le Carre: Many may be more familiar with the superb British TV series with Alec Guinness as spymaster extraordinaire (all the more so for his ordinariness), but Le Carre's original novel is rather deeper and more involved, with the betrayals and intrigues that underpin the plot unfolding in deceptively simple patterns and hints. Definitely one of my all-time favorite spy novels and certainly my favorite of Le Carre's.

5. Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, Jim Munroe: I found Munroe's story of a Toronto college student who becomes an insectoid superhero (by changing into an actual--size-accurate--housefly) by chance in the Akron Public Library in grad school, and learned to my utter shock that not only was there someone out there who wrote a lot like me, but he even looked slightly similar. It was entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and socially progressive without being too strident, and though Munroe's later work hasn't found as much favor with me (excepting his sci-fi novel, Angry Young Spaceman), I still find much artistic inspiration from his ongoing lo-fi efforts, many of which can be found at his website.

6. Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens: I love Dickens and read all his novels almost back-to-back in college (helped by "Phiz" and his illustrations, all included in those particular editions). I've gone back and reread many since (Bleak House is magnificent, as some of you probably know), but none quite evoke the curiosity and thrill that the great man's offbeat fictional account of London's 1780 anti-Catholic "Gordon Riots" does. It's especially interesting as it seems to take place in a kind of "pre-history" of Dickens' traditional literary world (A Tale of Two Cities excepted). Knowing that "dark histories" like Barnaby Rudge lay at the root of so many tangled inheritances and relationships in the following century added immensely to the appeal. There's also a crow in it; they're very, very cool.

7. Therese Raquin, Emile Zola: Zola's a (surprisingly?) huge favorite of mine, and I get the impression he isn't terribly well regarded these days; his philosophy of literary naturalism has fallen long by the wayside, as has his earnestness in the "scientific" dissection of his characters' upbringing and influences. I don't think, though, that I've ever read a Zola novel I didn't like. His first work, though, which caused a scandal in the France of Napoleon III that was about to get steamrollered by Prussia, is probably my favorite. Germinal, L'Assomoir, Le Debacle, Nana, and Au Bonheur des Dames are all great works and favorites (with the possible exception of Germinal, but I just need to reread it again), but they don't have the drive and aren't quite as dripping with evil and greed as Therese Raquin. Drink up for one of the most excruciating dinner scenes you'll ever read!

8. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton: She explored the same truths Henry James did in a much similar milieu, from a subaltern perspective, and with fewer words in a prophetic nod to future readers. Lily Bart is a superb tragic heroine, and the novel's portrait of high-society sharks in late 19th century New York and Italy isn't to be forgotten, especially after Terence Davies' 2000 film adaptation (one of my favorite book-to-cinema translations) with Gillian Anderson as Lily.

9. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ernest M. Gaines: One of the best books ever written about my home state, and a moving look at the changing role of African-Americans in both Louisiana and the United States through the eyes of a young slave who manages to live (and I mean live) into the dawn of the civil rights era, meeting and surmounting a number of tragedies along the way. The TV movie with Cicely Tyson is well worth watching, too. I had the honor of working at a book-signing with Mr. Gaines in New Roads over a decade ago, and I'll never forget his patience with his well-wishers and the good humor with which he recounted his life and work.

10. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides: A magnificent portrait of southeast Michigan, Detroit, and a marvelous lead in Cal, who crosses all manner of boundaries in the quest for personal fulfilment and identification. Not only is there a rich cast of characters in support, but also a fantastic setpiece (see?) in Eugenides' description of the Detroit "rebellion" (Cal's words) of 1967. The image of young Cal racing through the streets on a kid's bike during the violence isn't easily forgotten.

11. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: The best novel ever written about New Orleans and one of my favorite comic novels of all time. I suppose my background prejudices me in its favor, but Ignatius J. Reilly is a brilliant creation and the characters (even now, Ignatius apart, I couldn't put my finger on a favorite--Jones? The Levys? Patrolman Mancuso? Mr. Gonzalez?), put together, furnish the ammunition for a fully roundabout satire that, for a change, accomplishes the rarely genuine achievement of "equal opportunity offense."

12. The Sundering Flood, William Morris: Morris was essentially the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre, and is better known for his long saga The Well At The World's End. I prefer this tighter work, though, charting the fate of two lovers across a bucolic, deceptively timeless landscape with a bracing finale and a political surprise at the end. More fantasy writers should look behind Tolkien to people like Morris for their inspiration, if you ask me.

13. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Thomas Kenneally: More boundary crossing with Kenneally's tragicomic tale of the title character, an Australian aborigine who, rejected by white society, goes on the lam as a late-period bushranger in a much less socially Manichean tale than one might think. I read Schindler's List (or Ark, written by Kenneally) before I saw the movie, and though I thought Spielberg improved on the book (problematic though the film seemed at times), I'd like to have seen him try with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Stark, moving, and atmospheric.

14. The Devils, Fyodor Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky's rigid conservatism somehow enriches this dark tale of nihilism and revolution in 19th century Russia, loosely inspired, I believe, by the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. Stavrogin is the ultimate progenitor of modern-day right-wing literary bogeymen, but is arguably all the more hypnotic and engrossing for it.

15. Dark Star, Alan Furst: Furst has sadly (in my opinion) only been pleasing himself for a while, but his first few novels were truly exceptional works of historical espionage. Dark Star is probably the best, examining questions of identity and loyalty while providing an exciting, eventful back-and-forth journey across the fateful, darkening landscape of Europe in the late 1930s, with ultimate outcast and spy Andre Szara as the reader's stand-in, a desperately sane man in a rapidly maddening world.

16. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen: Deserved classics Pride and Prejudice and all the rest may be, but I prefer Austen's mildly prophetic jaunt into "meta" territory, as young Catherine Morland lets her Gothic fantasies run wild once she receives an invitation from some new friends to a mysterious country house. The cliches of Gothic novels (and even the kind Austen wrote) are gently and keenly parodied, but the characters never seem less than real, even though they may be less vivid, say, than Lizzie or Darcy.

17. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis: Of all the Chronicles of Narnia, this one is probably my favorite. Aslan pokes his snout in when you least expect it as usual, but the moral lessons seem rather sensible in this one, and it takes place against a rather wide-ranging backdrop, with Shasta and Aravis well-matched as a bickering couple who wouldn't seem entirely out of place in The Thirty-Nine Steps. The vast land of Calormen may have been a conservative English parody of Orientalist fantasies, but the Tisroc could have stepped out of The Arabian Nights (which Lewis unsurprisingly didn't like, the more fool him) as a shrewd sultan or adviser. And, once again, there are talking animals.

18. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: The first volume of the Buru Quartet is my favorite work by Indonesia's most famous writer. A heartbreaking love story and a compelling historical account of colonial Java, I wish it had been a little shorter so I could have assigned it in my Southeast Asia class instead of "Pram"'s more didactic debut, The Fugitive. Annelies' travails are truly heartbreaking.

19. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle: I've loved all the Holmes stories since I was a kid, and I still think the most famous Holmes novel is my favorite of the longer works, the change from the great crimefighting pair's usual London haunts and the grim, forbidding Dartmoor setting serving the story wonderfully (not to mention the classic contrast between the great detective's unflinching rationalism and the brooding folklore that inspired his case). 

20. The Feast of All Saints, Anne Rice: I don't care for Anne Rice, and her historical novel chronicling the fortunes of New Orleans' antebellum gens du couleur libre (free blacks) is probably her least obnoxious work. Fortunately, it's also terrific, Rice's cartoonish Gothic morbidity finally meeting its match in the grotesque world the characters are forced to inhabit. The result is riveting and haunting in the extreme. 

21. Claudine at School, Colette: Colette's semi-autobiographical account of her younger years was a revelation, as much of my reading from the fin de siecle had been awfully stodgy in comparison. Bitchy plotting, back-stabbing, surprisingly warm and affectionate friendships, implied lesbianism (that may have been my imagination or misreading)... it offered a picture of nineteenth-century France (one of my favorite historical and literary backdrops) I'd never discovered and thoroughly enlivened a rather grim period in my life.

22. Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini: Perhaps not as well-known as Captain Blood, the story of pathological smartass Andre-Louis Moreau and his adventures before and during the French Revolution is (a) a lot better and (b) gives us one of popular literature's most indelible and appealing (for me, anyway) characters, as well as a first-hand open-air demonstration of the history of the commedia dell'arte. An interesting and superior contrast to stuff like Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel

23. Dwellers In The Mirage, A. Merritt: I discovered Merritt by chance in Akron, and he swiftly become one of my favorite writers, a masterful champion of the pulp form without the morbidity and loquacity of, say, Lovecraft (love the latter though I do). The Moon Pool was my first Merritt love, but his finest work is probably Dwellers, in which northern Alaska is revealed to conceal a hidden civilization (a Merritt specialty) which not only offers high adventure and rugged doings but also a surprisingly melancholy take on fate and inevitability. Merritt at his finest, and for me, that's saying a lot.

24. The Plague, Albert Camus: I haven't read any Camus since college, but The Plague took me aback, as the characters' existential struggles in pestilence-ravaged Oran gave voice to a surprisingly life-affirming message, as a motley band of outcasts have to band together in order to face the remorseless and faceless title enemy (not to mention themselves). Probably well worth rereading one of these days.

25. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin: I read the Earthsea Chronicles at about the same time I read Lord of the Rings, and while the latter's stock with me has steadily declined, the Earthsea books have only grown in stature. I need to reread the whole thing, but Wizard was something of a mold-breaker, refashioning sword-and-sorcery tropes into a mysterious, hypnotic saga of dashed hubris, self-discovery, and redemption that pulls away purely escapist elements like a flag before a bull. Fantastic stuff, and especially interesting when read alongside the (hilariously) lackluster SyFy miniseries.

26. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner: Faulkner was something of a mania with me ever since I was convinced to revisit my As I Lay Dying-induced hatred in high school and try The Sound and the Fury. I enjoyed several of Faulkner's novels, but Absalom, Absalom! and its examination of the weird, wild Sutphen family, was probably the extreme Faulkner experience, as far as I was concerned. I haven't looked back, really, but it's become one of my mind's enduring shadows.

27. Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery: A very pleasant surprise, and a lovely evocation of rural life and the pleasures of... Canada. Occasionally sugary and sappy, but nowhere near as much as I thought it would be. There are good reasons for its popularity, and Anne Shirley is as beguiling a heroine as has ever appeared in print. I was so taken with Anne that I actually read a few of the others (even though I got stuck on the third or fourth).

28. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad: Conrad's another of those figures who captured my imagination while not having written much of anything for which I have great fondness. Two exceptions (arguably three, if one counts Victory): The Secret Agent and Nostromo. While The Secret Agent's the most influential, Nostromo is the most epic and ambitious, with a rich cast of characters and an unforgettable setting in the breakaway rebel province of Sulaco, with a fortune in gold missing and any number of armies or factions vying for its control and the power that would bring. Nostromo himself is a vivid, compelling figure, but it's interesting to note, too, how often he's simply at the mercy of events, a thoughtful philosophical statement from Conrad.

29. A Soldier Erect, Brian W. Aldiss: Aldiss is best known for his science fiction, but his semi-autobiographical account of his soldier days in Burma during the Second World War struck me sideways during college, mainly for how clear-eyed yet plucky young Horatio Stubbs remained, even in the face of military obtuseness and Japanese attack. One of the top subconscious influences in my own work, and all the more cherished because of it.

30. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne: I'm still not sure I can really make head nor tail of it, but Sterne's pre-meta classic (made into a wonderful film--somehow--by Michael Winterbottom) is a continuing inspiration, both in the character of Uncle Toby and the reminder that, in fiction, anything is possible so long as you know how and when to package it. That reminds me, too, I still need to read A Sentimental Journey.

31. The Deluge, Henryk Sienkiewicz: Sienkiewicz is probably best known outside Poland for Quo Vadis? and inside Poland for his mammoth historical fiction trilogy on Poland from 1648 to 1672 (written in the nineteenth century, when Poland was still ruled by Russia, Prussia--then Germany--and the Austrian Empire). Fire on the Steppe is the most highly regarded critically (Basia's a wonderful heroine, too), but I prefer The Deluge myself, mainly for the redemptive story of Andrei Kmita and the staggering setpiece in the novel's midsection recounting the epic 1655 siege of Czestochowa. If it gripped any harder, I'd choke.

32. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury: I'm not a huge fan of Bradbury--his nostalgia addiction turns me off--but he was never better than in subverting his own ideals in one of his most famous novels (more a collection of connected short stories, but I tend to consider it a novel). Some of the stories are quiet pinnacles of sci-fi/horror, some gentle ruminations on the inevitability of decay. Eloquent and brilliant.

33. Old Mortality, Walter Scott: Stark, striking story set against religious and political unrest in 1670s Scotland, and here Scott's at his best, with vivid characters interacting with real-life historical personages ("Bonnie Dundee") and plot lines handled with seemingly effortless brilliance. Old Mortality was so striking that I'm using it as a primer of sorts on how to write (among other works).

34. Mother London, Michael Moorcock: Moorcock's more an inspiration to me for his influence and artistic philosophy than for any large-scale work he's actually written, but Mother London was a fantastic blurring of genre lines that help to underscore how silly the partitions are at times, examining the postwar history of the city through a few interconnected families, some with legs in both Moorcock's "sci-fi/fantasy" and "literary" universes. "Literary" nativists beware!

35. The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger: A cliched choice, to be sure, but Holden's various plights spoke to me at that age as eloquently as they spoke to a great many other (probably male) adolescents, and the impressionistic picture of 50s New York is undeniably captivating. Even in the novel's riotously masculine world, Phoebe stands out as another great female character in the place you'd least expect.

36. Our Man In Havana, Graham Greene: Greene's knowledge of the tangled espionage circles of pre-Castro Cuba and his innate, yet often compromised humanity meet to superb effect in the character of Wormold, who, in the words of my own co-worker, "makes it work for him" and causes panic and uproar in the secret halls on both sides of the Atlantic. A wonderful satire and a great (if only implicit) bucket of Cold War cold water on the lies we're so often told.

37. (There's A Slight Chance) I Might Be Going To Hell, Laurie Notaro: Notaro's another of those writers I found by chance who swiftly went on to become one of my all-time favorites. Mainly a writer of humorous essays, #37 was her first novel and mirrored her own relocation from Arizona to Oregon, as a newly-arrived transplant discovers that her bucolic new home hides many (often hilarious) dark secrets. The alternately witty and merrily vulgar humor that infused her essays hasn't lost any of its sparkle in the transmutation to fiction. Excellent use of canine characters, too, probably some of the best I've ever read.

38. The Space Merchants, C.L. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl: Gloriously cynical, far-seeing advertising sci-fi satire written in the 1950s and set well into the future, as corporations run the U.S. government (to quote someone I can't remember, "a far-fetched and unlikely scenario") and dominate space. An ad exec runs off the rails and finds himself exiled to Central American plantation/gulags as he tries to clear his name and/or destroy the system that's trying to destroy him. Probably the closest book I've ever read to the manic spirit and scabrous joy of a film like Theodore Flicker's The President's Analyst.

39. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: Many may find this a surprising choice, but I've reread it twice since my boyhood and I still think it's great. One of the most literary titanic statements of humans vs. fate is considerably enlivened by the maritime setting and expert knowledge of the whaling world of the mid-1800s. If that doesn't spell "fun," then I don't know what does (or I need to be committed).

40. Isara, Wole Soyinka: Soyinka's follow-up to Ake is a warm, affectionate semi-autobiographical account (got a lot of these in here) of his young adulthood and the continuing ambitions of his traditional, often flummoxed father. Vivacious yet unflinching in its portrayal of the Westernization of Yoruba Nigeria and the identity crisis of its middle-classes, Isara's a marvelous introduction (not that it was for me) to African literature and a classic of semi-autobiography, from one of my most admired favorite writers.

41. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis: I'll never forget how hard I giggled when I first read it; every time I have a twinge of regret at not staying in academia, I just have to reread it. Written for 1950s Britain but still applicable just about anywhere, the twisted saga of Jim Dixon and his struggle to survive at one of the new "red-brick universities" despite the often unwitting opposition to his efforts from a calcified department and administration is at once unquestionably a product of its time and personally eternal. "You sam?"

42. Caleb Williams, William Godwin: Caleb Williams looks like just another classic Gothic tale of sinister, mysterious family doings in another gloomy old pile in the country, but this time it's told from the perspective of one of the servants, whose treatment during the course of the novel offers a riveting subaltern look at both English literature and English society as a whole during the late 18th century. Considering how influential the former was for English-speaking literature as a whole, it's mind-boggling to track the influences as they radiate outward, but the book itself is a gripping read, for all its grim tone.

43. His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke: Clarke was arguably the progenitor of Australian literature, and the first great Australian novel is still one of the best, and an astonishing surprise when I turned it up by chance in the former PTO shop by the Produce Station. Rufus Dawes' unjust conviction and nightmarish journey through the penal system in Van Diemen's Land, Norfolk Island, and New South Wales, and his gradual escape and redemption were likened by Jan Morris to the post-Stalinist works of someone like Solzhenitsyn, and some of the same themes hold sway, in a world where the verities and shibboleths of the noble and middle-class families of a work like Caleb Williams have been literally upended. A number of fictionalized real-life incidents occurring throughout the book offer almost an alternative Australian history to the sanitized version that held sway in the country for well into the twentieth century. The implications and processes are dizzying to consider when reading His Natural Life, and the book itself is excellent to boot, if occasionally a little sentimental and reliant on coincidence (for which we can probably thank Dickens in any case).

44. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley: One of the all-time classics of any sort. The haunting, perceptive themes are still relevant nearly two centuries after its creation and it's interesting to note how high it rises in several categories. One of the greatest ever science fiction novels? One of the greatest pre-1900 novels written by a woman? One of the greatest examples of the epistolary form in a novel? One of the greatest novels--probably the greatest novel--ever written, essentially, on a bet? Oh, yeah, it's all of those. Almost forgot to answer.

45. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman: Especially good after reading Heinlein's Starship Troopers, The Forever War was Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman's brilliant attempt to exorcise the madness of the war he'd fought by transposing it to outer space and focusing on the ludicrously long distances troops would have to travel to fight. As the war stretches into thousands of years long, Private William Mandella starts to wonder why he's there, and if he'll ever get a moment alone with a cute comrade. Heartbreaking and hilariously funny, it's one of the towering achievements of American sci-fi.

46. At The Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft: A technical cheat, as I think it's usually classed as a novella, but the latter form really deserves more respect, and it is, after all, Lovecraft's ultimate statement of the best (and most surprising) aspects of his philosophy and a haunting, increasingly terrifying exploration of the unknown reaches of Antarctica. The greatest achievement of the most justly celebrated American cult author.

47. The Star Diaries, Stanislaw Lem: I read a lot of Lem in college, and The Star Diaries was probably the greatest expression of Lem's strange discomfort with humanity. I read somewhere that he regarded the species as a "disease," and while I've agreed with him only in the darkest depths of depression, it's still bracing and continually surprising to remember the existence of such an unusual attitude, and how it could infuse a thoughtful kind of literature. Astronaut Ijon Tichy and his encounters with a number of unusual civilizations and situations merely serve to underscore how strange we must appear to others and how strange we actually are.

48. The Black Arrow, Robert Louis Stevenson: I just read it on the plane, but whatever. I'm not a big Stevenson fan, particularly, but The Black Arrow was a terrific example of how a novel technically serialized for children can provide the moral ambiguity and believable character development of an "adult" literary phenomenon, and this almost a century and a half ago. One of the characters turns out to be a bit of a letdown, but it's a great reminder to familiarize myself better with the young adult fiction of today.

49. Down In The Zero, Andrew Vachss: I went on a huge Vachss kick in my early twenties, and though I would probably find the moral overkill hardly to my taste today, it was hard to resist the adrenalin rush of these things, and Down In The Zero combined Burke's brooding machismo with the rotten backdrop of a New England suburban Potemkin village. Down, dirty, and utterly compelling (I thought then; it would be interesting to gauge my reaction today).

50. Pawn In Frankincense, Dorothy Dunnett: Dunnett was one of the great masters of historical fiction, combining swashbuckling action and (more usually) labyrinthine intrigue with charismatic yet morally ambiguous heroes. Pawn was probably the most striking of her Lymond Chronicles, as our heroes follow the trail of a... charismatic yet loathsome villain from war-torn 16th-century Scotland to the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Dunnett at the height of her powers, and again, that's saying something.

*Describing the relationship between Danton and Robespierre, and the latter's jealousy of the former, in case anyone wondered.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: 1 December 2010 12:07 PM EST
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26 November 2010
Worse Than Nazi Germany
Now Playing: Belle and Sebastian--"Me and the Major"

Not at all, of course, but how many of you just then thought the Internet had taken over my brain? More than a few?

I fly to Baton Rouge once a year, usually at Thanksgiving (although relatives' travel plans caused me to switch to Christmas last year, and a damn good thing too, as it enabled the best Thanksgiving/birthday combo ever). I don't mind flying, and used to have a fascination with airports (which has dwindled considerably in recent years). I hate commercial airlines with close to a passion. So I generally have mixed feelings about flying, and these were complicated considerably once I learned of the new security measures put into place by the TSA (Transport Security Administration).

Things got even more complicated in trying to untangle the various pros and cons of the situation. Let me be clear: at least, the TSA has done a spectacularly awful job explaining why these measures are necessary. I understand that least year's "underpants bomber" has been given as a proximate cause but (a) surely that's an argument for increased security in foreign airports (Dutch, if I remember rightly) and (b) there's been plenty of anecdotal evidence (unless it's all completely fabricated) that items like water bottles and other bigtime no-nos have actually slipped past the screeners (and surely this is one of the few places where anecdotal evidence is actually important for a change--it only takes one). I also have grave doubts about these measures as a whole, even the post-9/11 routine to which I had become pretty well used by now; security experts like Bruce Schneier have actually suggested going back to a pre-9/11 framework (though I think that's a bit excessive). Obviously the government should try and do all it can to make air travel as safe as possible, but is it ever possible to be completely safe in an airliner? Add to that the health concerns of scientists and laypeople over the new X-ray scanners and the grotesque spectacle of the "patdowns," and you had a very tricky situation for a traveler who doesn't care for airline flights in the first place.

It was also interesting in that this dilemma--scan or patdown--was the first big online kerfuffle to affect me directly. Usually during something like the Polanski extradition controversy or the Shirvell stalking circus (actually, I suppose the latter could have affected me directly as I might have conceivably run into the guy at one point), I'd amass information from a number of different sources and consider my opinion accordingly. Here, in the case of something I was actually scheduled to confront, it proved more intractable than usual. There are a few things that instantly raise my hackles--or at least mildly arouse my suspicions--than whenever I find them lying in wait on the Internet. One is the tendency to equate both American political parties or "extremes" as somehow being both equally bad. I am biased on the question, to be sure, as a self-described liberal (whose indulgence, from a left-wing perspective, of a problematic Democratic Party, can partially be attributed to the historically low curve under which I grew up in Louisiana). Ideologically, they may be equally unpleasant (and here we speak of extreme extremes), but the "extreme left" may have its share of dodgy characters, but in no way does it dominate the airwaves or (to some extent) Congress, the way the other side does. So when I see formulations, online or otherwise, I don't even try to restrain the eye-roll. On this issue, though, there seemed to be standard agreement on the measures' unprecedented (for middle- and upper-middle class whites, mostly male) violations of privacy. Was I perhaps mistaken in this?

Right-wing outlets condemned the moves because they violated libertarian tenets and could in some way be attributed to Obama. Left-wing outlets condemned them because they violated human rights, were much more intrusive for women and minorities... and for all I know, because they could in some way be attributed to Obama. After reading through some of the various arguments, I found myself in very broad general agreement, though with a number of caveats. As someone who's needed privilege-checking lessons in the past (and still does), I found it pretty instructive to read the observations that people of color (and to some extent women) put up with this sort of thing on a much more regular basis. Similar were the comments that the people who'd found little wrong with the Iraq War or torture of anyone, let alone innocent people, were now crying foul because their winkies were being cupped. None of that makes the measures any less intrusive or unjustified, but they were useful points to keep in mind. The latter, more right-wing objections also gave me pause, especially given some of the new congressional "leadership"'s avowal to try and shut down government 1995-style. I don't generally give much credit to conspiracy theories, but the accusation that the probable astroturfing of dissent was aimed at abolishing the TSA and replacing it with private firms sounded a little more plausible than usual (something tells me, that, oh, Xe wouldn't be much of an improvement). So... I was opposed, but it was definitely a qualified opposition.

I publicly announced the plan online and was taken to task by left-wing (I think) critics of the measures. Though I understand that "following orders" isn't much of an excuse, not everything is a "Niemoller moment" (any more than the Michigan smoking ban was implicitly tantamount to Nazism), and it wasn't much of a stretch to check my privilege (see?) and acquaint myself with the shit deal TSA staff have. I also have a hard time trusting the judgment of people using "why don't they just find other jobs?" in the present economy. I did sympathize, though, with the idea behind National Opt-Out Day. The TSA apparently urged people not to go for the patdowns, but then why offer them as a possible option in the first place? I wasn't about to criticize people for exercising their perfectly legal rights. What was less clear was how I would personally respond.

I was leaning towards taking the patdown. I honestly wasn't bothered by what TSA employees would be able to "see" (maybe my privilege talking again, though I was very aware of why people would be bothered), and my leeriness of the radiation from the scanners petered out once I reminded myself of how reminiscent of the worry over microwaves and cellphones the discussion was. In the end, I reckoned that I'd rather have my privacy violated by a human being than a machine. Then, the night before, I started flipflopping again, and did so pretty much right up to leaving the taxi at Detroit Metro. It turned out that I didn't have to worry, at least as far as my personal experience was concerned. There was only one scanner up, and I wasn't sent through it (didn't know there was a "choice"), although the guy behind me was (and that raises a whole other set of questions). There was hardly any line and nobody was taking patdowns. I even overheard a couple of other people who had gotten to the airport very early (as I had) in order to avoid a line, so at least I wasn't alone. My objections still stand, but the episode functioned just as much as a lesson in the misinformation powers of the Internet (like I needed one of those).

One thing is certain, and that's that the uncertainty surrounding my Thanksgiving trip was pretty much the last straw for me as far as air travel is concerned. I'd been checking the Amtrak schedules, and was kicking myself that I didn't make the switch I'd been mulling for the past several years before I got airline tickets. It was a good hundred bucks cheaper than my plane ticket, and I would have saved an extra hundred bucks as I wouldn't have to take the shuttle to and from the airport. The long hours spent en route could be a genuinely decompressing experience and the kind of honest relaxation I expect people rarely find on family holidays. There's lovely scenery, lots of space, a bar car, and the possibility of a long layover in Chicago (side trip to the Art Institute?). It's looking better every second. I suppose I'd better move soon in any case before the so-called "security theater" swallows up our dwindling railroad system...


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:14 AM EST
Updated: 26 November 2010 12:02 PM EST
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20 October 2010
Kickabout Intruder
Now Playing: Guided By Voices--"Teenage FBI"

I don't play sports, and haven't for a very, very long time. If one counts quiz and college bowl (and trivia) as sports, I had a bit of a flourish in high school and undergrad, as captain of the high school team and then a player in college (our success in the latter was such that the Wieder-McKay "era" was labelled the triumph of an "upstart team" online several years back by bowl veterans of one of the eight jillion other small liberal arts colleges dotted around the Virginia countryside), and then won $100 at a trivia contest at one of the other chain restaurants run by my militantly sketchy first boss in Ann Arbor. If speaking of sports where more than the thumb was required, I haven't played since I was a very poor soccer player in elementary and middle school. There's been a fair amount written in the flurry of hysterical, slightly xenophobic comment on the alleged rise of American soccer in the past few years that the game's popularity among parents from the 1970s onward was due to its nonconfrontational qualities. I really don't remember it that way; what little memories I have of "league play" in Dave Treen-era Louisiana revolved around the anticipatory mix of ten percent excitement and ninety percent shorts-soiling terror that someone might pass the ball over my way. This would be succeeded by the memory of a sea of thuggish, jeering preppy faces rearing up to shriek in rage when I did something wrong. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, soccer (now that I have access to the internet) holds an interest for me that none of the other sports can really manage.* With no other sport can I really place myself on the field mentally.

Soccer in America has had a fraught economic and cultural history, never more so than since the introduction of Major League Soccer in 1993 (to replace the defunct North American Soccer League of the 1970s and 1980s). In that time, the World Cup was held in the United States, franchises developed in various cities, and soccer became a major niche interest for people throughout the country. For my part, my general lack of concern for sports certainly didn't extend that far. I vaguely remembered my own days of "playing," but that was about it, until I started to notice through my aforementioned reading campaigns what a big part the game played in global culture. Those interested can find an excellent fictional summation of the game's history (from a long-suffering Anglo-Scot's perspective) in George Macdonald Fraser's short story "D'ye Mind Jie Dee, Fletcher?" from his collection The Sheikh and the Dustbin (1988). Running across myriad references here and there started to pique my curiosity a little, as did growing awareness of the game as we all moved into the new millennium. I remember chats on the subject with a potential flame and former soccer player over a decade ago--sadly, I was never able to take advantage of her offer to "retrain me," and the subject remained on the mental backburner when I moved north and acquired access to baseball and hockey teams. I was vaguely aware of the 2002 World Cup while working at Piatto in Akron, Ohio (the soccer-literate staff Brazil fans to a man), but was unprepared for the local hoopla that would greet the next installment of the world's most popular sporting event.

The 2006 World Cup really crystallized many of my impressions of soccer culture in the States and my own problematic reactions to it, inevitably colored by my love-hate relationship with my beautiful yet icy saucepot of a town. The interest level in Ann Arbor was astonishing (although given the presence of so many international students, it really shouldn't have been), and the fascination the Cup engendered was personally unprecedented. People were talking about it on the streets and watching matches in bars, and before long I found myself checking out games on TV at Conor O'Neill's and following the fortunes of various national teams in the news (a few years before the country went digital and I declined to join). I'd been prepared a little by my enjoyment of the Torino Winter Olympics earlier that year, and the World Cup seemed like a more entertaining and boisterous version without all the fleece. Due to my contrarian bent, which has served and hindered me so well in the past, I wound up supporting France going into the final mainly because everyone else seemed to be backing Italy. My feelings, as one might imagine, were pretty mixed when it was all over, but I knew one thing: I did enjoy watching soccer.

The simplicity of the game appealed to someone who'd always found football a little overloaded, both physically and conceptually, with uniforms that looked like astronaut outfits from 70s Italian porno and accretions of arcane rules that seemed to reflect the American game's lack of a long-term tradition (nothing wrong with that, but the discrepancy was a little off-putting). Baseball suffered for me from its practical sanctification by the national elites as the "national pastime"**. I still enjoy watching football on occasion (or did back when I had TV), and baseball if there's absolutely nothing else available. Basketball's theoretically exciting, but impossible for me to follow (though I probably have more nostalgic memories of basketball than any other sport, probably down to hitting LSU games as a kid). Hockey's okay, but about on the same level as baseball (I've become a default Red Wings fan, though, both through my friend Karen who gave me the idea to move here in the first place, and my first Ann Arbor roommate George--the sane one--who breathed steam off the ice at Joe Louis Arena and is now a hockey blogger somewhere). Drawing on my childhood experience, if it can be called such, I could inhabit the space the players did in a way that simply wasn't possible with any other sport. It was more than a little exhilarating, and the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of it all really captured my interest. The way it could be so relatively laid-back (sure, or boring) much of the time and so tensely exciting when the ball came into possession of a really good player or neared a goal made for an excellent tension--other games seemed overstuffed by comparison.

The game was pretty scarce in my parts of the world for the next few years--there were never any matches carried on the big American networks, and CBC would only show one once in a blue moon due to some tangential connection with the Great Dominion. I resolved not to be caught napping when the next World Cup rolled around, as that seemed to be the only time soccer games had any widespread exposure in the States. Once again, the Winter Olympics prepared me for a global competition, as I cackled at the media-fuelled "conflict" between Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn and lost my heart to Canadian snowboarder Maelle Ricker. I was now able to watch games via ESPN online and CBC, and resisted the "Spain's gonna win" media narrative (they were basically 2010's Italy) for as long as I could (even Johan Cruyff couldn't do it, and--honorary Catalan and all--he's Dutch). The disgraceful final, though, encouraged me to throw in with one of my ancestral countries and end up happy that I did. I wondered whether I'd be so interested in the game again when the Cup was over, but this time I had a lot more options. I was happy, because I was able to enjoy the game on my own terms, and work out a few problems I had with the culture.

The comments of lucratively self-loathing hipsters on the subject may be hyperbolic, cartoonish and calculated, but they do contain a grain of truth. I made a joking comment once in an email to a friend that "Ann Arbor ruins things that should feel good, like progressive politics or an interest in food." There's more than an element of truth to it, and it applied to soccer as much as anything else. It's depressing to see fresh and original ways of thinking, eating, and living become status symbols, and it was weird to see people who would evince such contempt for machismo and thuggery in American culture and politics throw themselves headlong into machismo and thuggery in other cultures simply because the latter wasn't American. The Spain juggernaut was a case in point--it was like being a fan of the Dallas Cowboys or Manchester United a few years ago (i.e. easy). So, as I enjoyed the games, I tried to avoid becoming one of "those" soccer fans (I'd never been to Europe, for one thing), and tried to apply an impartial worldwide standard to my enjoyment of the game. Part of this involved me becoming interested in American soccer--the aforementioned Major League Soccer, games of which I began watching soon after the World Cup, with the SuperLiga competition (a contest between several intermediate-ranked teams of Major League Soccer and Mexico's Primera Division) first and foremost--the feisty Monarcas Morelia ended up on top this year. Following around the world, I'm now rooting in various degrees for Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, Chivas USA, New York Red Bulls, Cruz Azul, Corintians, Santos, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, St. Mirren, Fulham, Everton, Arsenal, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City, Newcastle, Bristol Rovers, Poole Town FC, Stade Rennais, St-Etienne, FC Barcelona, CF Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Inter Milan, Palermo, Panathinaikos, Werder Bremen, Ajax Amsterdam, Spartak Moscow, Hajduk Split, Birkirkara, Bursaspor, Trabzonspor, and Hapoel Tel-Aviv. That's a lot to keep track of, and I don't really follow Argentina yet.

I went with some friends from work to see a match this August in the run-down but enjoyable Pontiac Silverdome. Berlusconi's team, AC Milan, and Greek warhorses Panathinaikos were playing a friendly match organized by area Greek-American entrepreneurs who, it was rumored, had an eye towards establishing a local MLS franchise (there was one very early in the MLS' existence, the Detroit Wheels, who lasted one or two seasons in the mid-90s). The last game I'd seen live had been a girls' high school match in Baton Rouge, and it was interesting to see one played in a venue that reminded me with a pang of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU, with two of Europe's most storied and experienced soccer sides duking it out in a charismatically shabby industrial American town. In contradiction to Mr. Lander's admittedly satirical take on the game, the crowd was heavily involved in the match on a personally and culturally "authentic" level (quite a few probably second- or even first-generation Greek immigrants and a substantial number of Latinos). There were inevitable swathes of empty seats, but we were definitely in the "baby steps" of something. It was great fun to follow along with the chants of the relievingly well-behaved "ultras," and there was an unexpected sideshow when a pair of Oakland County chunkheads ran across the field towards the end of the game and were soundly thumped by security guards. The game was thankfully engrossing, with Panathinaikos seeming to be in control much of the time but AC Milan finally winning after it went into penalty kicks. So pretty true to life there, then. It was especially exciting to see Pan goalie Alexandros Tzorvas in action so soon after his terrific performance for the Greek national team during the World Cup. It was a great evening out (with a relatively sizable attendance of 30,000) and hopefully it'll encourage local interest in the game.

So that's how I ended up at Conor's this afternoon after a six-day stretch of work (much of it entertaining and hilarious, don't get me wrong) with a back-to-back evening and morning shift at the end, watching Manchester United narrowly defeat Bursaspor (which sucked--I wanted to watch Rangers vs. Valencia, but I don't think there was enough support). There's a new way to chill, even if it involves clenching at various moments. I'm a little alarmed, after last weekend, that this new interest of mine might have strange side-effects. Watching the Lions beat the Cardinals at the Red Hawk might actually get me interested in the NFL, which would be rather unnerving. Still, so long as I don't actually care about the Big Ten, I think things will be okay.

Incidentally, as this is a sports-themed post, there should be a PSA at the end, and so there will be. Fitting, too, that it should be about bullying. I went to work at 5:30 this morning, and so didn't get the call to wear purple until I got home with a few beers in me. I was never bullied as a kid in high school, at least not to my knowledge (there was a one-off incident in freshman year, but it was very much a one-off, and I was partly to blame). I was certainly never bullied for my sexuality, which, as I'm straight (to the best of my knowledge), stood to "reason" in the dominant culture. I can't imagine what it must be like to have that done to one, and the recent rash of bullying and suicides, Mr. Clementi's in particular, is an appalling comment on the way things are. I don't know in what position I might ever find myself to be supportive of a teenager going through such an ordeal, but if you are, I strongly urge you to offer help or comradeship. Thank you, and go all Detroit area sports franchises.

*I need hardly point out that the rest of the world calls it football in its various forms. It's become commonplace for ostentatious American soccer enthusiasts (I've gotten tired of typing "hipsters") of a certain type to call it such (or worse, "footie"--it reminds me of when certain Americans started saying "shite" because they'd seen it in Trainspotting), but it's hard for me not to view it as an affectation of the kind mentioned above. I tried calling it futbol, the Spanish term generally used in the Latin American circles for which the... OASEs have little time, as they aren't in Western Europe. I've decided that, since I'm an American, I'm calling it soccer. Besides, that's what Canadians call it, too.

**There's a great scene in Philip Kaufman's 1972 Western curio The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid in which an unsuspecting burgher played by MacGyver's Dana Elcar excitedly turns to a mild-mannered visitor (in reality famous robber Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson) during an 1870s baseball game and chirps "It's on its way to becoming our national sport!" Younger calmly replies "Our national sport is shooting, sir, and always will be."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 21 October 2010 4:46 PM EDT
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12 October 2010
Karlsefni? Beringians?
Now Playing: Japandroids--"Heart Sweats"

Getting back into a bloggerly swing of things will be awkward, painful and bloody, and may involve a great deal of self-indulgent rambling. So nothing new there, then. Ann Arbor area residents, for example, may find the recent news that David Arquette and Courtney Cox have split up both distressing and pertinent. One wonders if factions will develop among the townspeople who've taken our most famous recent part-time immigrants to heart. I think that might have been "several weeks ago," but you never can tell. I'm also pretty sure it wasn't my co-worker's fault, but again, I have no proof one way or the other.

Yesterday saw both National Coming Out Day and Columbus Day. I'm wholeheartedly in support of the former--to the point where I consider further comment unnecessary--and somewhat conflicted about the latter. I've often found wholesale liberal condemnation of European explorers for the crimes that followed their exploits (and often accompanied them) ahistorical and counterproductive. I remember getting in an extremely silly and circular argument with one friend a decade back who probably just enjoyed watching my brow furrow (maybe literally--I should have been more proactive with her). If Columbus had known that smallpox would wipe out millions because he was bad at math and geography, would he have still done what he'd done? Probably, and just as probably invented some spurious religious justification for doing so. It still leaves a slightly uneasy taste in one's mouth, especially as the critics often turn out to be as teleological and reductionistic as the unthinking cheerleaders for European supremacy. With all that said, though, the talk of a "National Reconsideration Day" finds a willing supporter in this blogger, as more thought and reflection on the history those of us with European ancestry (even if, or especially if, we might have Native American ancestry as well) share with their fellow Americans without, could hardly hurt, especially in times such as this when political extremes (or, to be accurate, one political extreme) hogs the headlines and airwaves with screams of "socialism" and "immigration." So bring on National Reconsideration Day--just make sure you don't solely rely on either Francis Parkman or Dee Brown in discussion (excellent though both are in their ways).

George Kennedy, Murder on Location (1983): My college friend and future roommate Mark's roommate Geoff's friend whose name I can't remember (see how this kind of thing starts?) came to visit Roanoke one weekend in '94 or '95 and we got into a couple of surprisingly vigorous arguments. One was on the relative merit of Phil Ochs and the other on whether or not George Kennedy was a good actor. I would have thought the man's decades-long dependability and Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cool Hand Luke would have sealed the deal, but apparently not. I wound up astonishing myself over my vehemence in Kennedy's defense, but it was next to impossible for me to understand how he could have caused such offense. When I noticed his 1983 murder mystery on the fifty-cent shelves at Dawn Treader a couple of months ago, I immediately jumped at the opportunity, even though it took me a mystifyingly long time to finish. How could I turn it down? "Actor George Kennedy stars in a new role as sleuth--when murder on the set turns the cast into corpses!" The high-profile Western The Godless is filming in Mexico and the hopes and fears of many ride thereon--the much buzzed-about picture is due to signal the return of the Western (represented at that time, from what I remember, by 1981's The Legend of the Lone Ranger--a turkey I actually saw in the theater--and 1982's Barbarosa, with Willie Nelson and Gary Busey), a little wish-fulfillment, I suspect, on Kennedy's part. Filming is already tense and nervous enough without cast and crew starting to get all murdered and shit, but the latter they do, and it falls to Kennedy and a wisecracking former New York cop-turned-character actor to suss out the villain.

Now, I didn't think it would be bad, not the kind of godawful celebrity-penned potboiler I'm pretty sure I've never read. I certainly didn't reckon it would be good, either. It's in the middle--not exactly groundbreaking, but a fun, brisk entertainment that serves more than anything else as a showcase for its author's proudly square-but-fair personality. Kennedy comes across as a regular-but-savvy Joe tossed in the middle of a seething, churning Hollywood maelstrom and forced to pry himself loose with the help of common sense and an unusually detailed knowledge of airplanes (Kennedy is apparently a trained and enthusiastic pilot in "real life"). There are sleazy reporters, tough broads, wide-eyed ingenues, gay matadors (yep), and cameo appearances from real-life actors like Glenn Ford, Raquel Welch, Dean Martin, and Mariette Hartley (yep--last  one's the coolest, unsurprisingly). Along the way, Kennedy takes time to dish about the problems with "Hollywood these days" (what must he think of the present, I wonder?), as well as debate with neo-Nazi pilots and kvetch about his kids' "godawful music." It's a forty-proof hoot enlivened considerably by detailed and relevant knowledge about how filming works on big-budget Hollywood films (at one point he has to take over directing, and I suspect he would have done fine in "real life"). It's great to find an actor I greatly admire (and who was, by all accounts, widely respected offscreen) doing such a good job in other forms of entertainment. A great way to while away a Sunday afternoon, even if it took me around three or four.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:37 PM EDT
Updated: 13 October 2010 12:18 AM EDT
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30 September 2010
Drinking! Yay!
Now Playing: Caribou--"Every Time She Turns Round It's Her Birthday"

I suppose I should feel guilty about not updating my blog. I do to some extent, but my time has been taken up with so much else in the way of creative endeavor and (semi-?) professional responsibility that the energy can scarcely be mustered. When I look back on this year in comparison to last year, it seems especially weird. Weirder still, to be sure, are the new setup and graphics seems to have installed in my blogging absence. It looks like a PBS Kids' version of those propaganda stills used to brainwash Warren Beatty in The Parallax View.

I kept a journal through pretty much the entirety of 2009, something I don't think I ever did before, and recently started it up again after I let it slide at the beginning of the summer (shortly before my bike ride to Dexter and Livingston County). Among other things, I was worried that my dreams would go unrecorded and subsequently wither. There was also the need to keep some of the more ludicrous aspects of life at work--and in Ann Arbor--generally recorded, in the hope of one day mining them for fiction (every time I get exasperated with a certain aspect of my job, I simply have to remind myself that it's never boring). It's not like I can claim to have been writing feverishly during the summer, either. My aforementioned midlife crisis did for that, and I think throwing myself back into the cultural swing of things with writing, music and films may well have done for the blogging.

When I started the blog, I was just coming off arguably my worst year in Ann Arbor. Moving here in 2002, I was able to temper my initial disillusionment with the place by socializing furiously with people from work and becoming a lot more culturally savvy than I had been at grad school or before. Unfortunately, my job (despite the many cool co-workers) was awful, and a new gig at Cafe du Jour and a new place in the beautiful but largely sterile Old West Side of Ann Arbor failed to compensate for a powerful loneliness, all the worse for the fact that I turned thirty shortly thereafter. My work friends mostly drizzled away and the social cadre system in town proved near impossible to crack. The winters at either end of 2004 were especially bad. There were a few silver linings--I met a couple of really cool people at my new job and started to seriously learn about cooking; though I had to move in August, the new place improved dramatically once some of the loons moved out and I had the house practically to myself for an entire year; and I saw New Year's Eve out in fine style thanks to my friend Jess at Planned Parenthood (another silver lining), partly in the company of someone I'd later befriend at another job and who may well be reading this post! I started blogging shortly thereafter, inspired partly by the late lamented Ann Arbor Is Overrated, and began meeting people in social situations after that. I went to a show last night and ran into an old friend from that era, recently returned to Michigan, and we had a great conversation on how much the "scene" has changed in the intervening half-decade. It bewilders me now to find how many of my posts were simply show reviews and the like. Ever since, though, I've kept it up off and on, and tend to feel guilty when I have nothing that seems worthy of expression in such a forum.

It's especially weird to compare this year's output with last year's, as last year was quite eventful and productive in many ways. I suppose this has been more a year for contemplation than activity. Mental, anyway; I've probably spent as much time on my bike as off, and have been riding hell-for-leather with the camera in search of fun nature photos. It's wrought hell on the writing, but it's kept me active and, to a certain extent, creative. I've been talking with my co-worker regarding sundry subjects and we're both excited for this winter, partly because we're convinced it'll see a renaissance in both our creative outputs. I've finished three stories this year (two of them languishing from way back, but still) and have a rather longer project (two years in the making, and which I'm still leery of lending a classification easily subject to ridicule) very near completion. The goal eventually is to try and write a story at least every two months, and there are plenty of ideas and false starts still in existence I can choose to finish. I wonder sometimes what it all means, but then I remember the people who mean to write but never do, let alone get published or recognized in some fashion. It helps to see people like my burlesque chums turn their dreams into reality, and though Ann Arbor can be a really obnoxious place, it's nice to know so many people involved in creative pursuits.

All this blather is more or less by way of an apology if anyone enjoys following the blog. I keep meaning to post twice every month, but something always intrudes, and I'm at a bit of a crossroads regarding how I'm going to proceed with this merry shambles of a life (I think this is the more positive and productive component of the "midlife crisis" earlier this summer). In many ways, I'm where I wanted to be when I arrived in Ann Arbor--well-employed (in my particular field, at least), creatively active, and wealthy in good friends who are interesting and genuine. Having drooled thus, it probably won't be a problem to write something every week (maybe). Thank you for reading.

Oh, man, Dan Snaith is a genius.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:09 PM EDT
Updated: 30 September 2010 9:11 PM EDT
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22 August 2010
The Worlds of Michael Ripper
Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Sarn Helen"

The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960-1969 (2010):

"When I was a child my mother used to own a cat--a seal point Siamese. Whenever he was found to have done something wrong--shred my father's books, unravel toilet rolls, shit in the washing basket--he would be carried out, glaring malevolently over my mother's shoulder with an expression that clearly said 'The world shall hear from me again.' People who have seen the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films [not that you should, if you've got any sense, at least the two by Jess Franco, which are fucking wretched--Ed.] may see the connection.

"It has to be said that none of these films features Christopher Lee shitting in a washing basket. We can be reasonably sure that had this appeared in the script, he would have refused to do it. Or alternatively, he would still be complaining forty years later about the fact, stating that it was not something that Sax Rohmer had ever written about and insisting that he had not appeared in a film featuring a laundry/faeces interface since 1968 and why was it all that anyone ever asked him about?"

--James Brough, review of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) in The Shrieking Sixties.

"The British made horror films?" I still remember the frisson of, yes, horror on hearing my ex-roommate say those words. My ongoing love of Doctor Who and the much beloved 80s cable TV staple Commander USA's Groovie Movies more or less condemned me to an eternal fondness for British horror both cinematic and literary, much of it more nuanced and layered, especially in terms of class, than its American equivalent. My love for The Wicker Man (1973), Horror Express (1972), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) first led me to Chris Wood's British Horror Films site in the summer of 2003, and I've been commenting there ever since. Many of the comments involve, as one might imagine, reviews and criticism, sometimes lengthy, of British horror films. After Chris' 2006 success with The First BHF Book of Horror Stories (in which I had a couple of pieces), board maven and film expert Darrell Buxton got the idea to create a sort of companion piece to the Harvey Fenton's FAB Books classic Ten Years of Terror. The latter was a collection of reviews of British horror films of the 1970s, making the provocative claim that such films (for instance, the ones I mentioned earlier and some of Pete Walker's grungy, socially biting classics like 1973's House of Whipcord and 1974's Frightmare) could be seen as part of a genuine cinematic movement, the same way many French films of the 1950s and 1960s comprised the Nouvelle Vague. Darrell's idea was to do a similar job on British horror films of the 1960s. The 1970s had already been covered (though are still considered somewhat controversial in this respect) and the 1950s have become perhaps a little too celebrated for their role as the decade that saw Hammer Films rise to become a global icon. The intervening years have, it seems, seen surprisingly little systematic criticism, and it's to fill this deficit that The Shrieking Sixties came about. Darrell solicited reviews for a set amount of films per year, and sundry BHFers rose to the occasion (I've got several in there myself, and forced myself through Jess Franco's spectacularly terrible Fu Manchu films--following The Face of Fu Manchu--starring Christopher Lee to write them).

Looking through the films themselves, it's not all that surprising that they haven't really attracted the kind of sustained cult attention that their companions of the bookend decades did, as there's no one "house specialty" along the lines of the cozy yet increasingly erotic Gothic horrors of the late 1950s or the scabrous, gory, full-on sexual suburban horrors of the 1970s. The 1960s was such a wildly experimental decade in so many artistic arenas that perhaps it's little wonder that there seems too much to take in. Michael Armstrong, wunderkind director of 1969's Haunted House of Horror (featuring Frankie Avalon as the "epitome of Swinging London"--that would have been a hefty typo--and nearly featuring a young David Bowie as a psycho killer), pens an affectionate foreword that vividly evokes the era's kaleidoscopic qualities. When it came to British horror, films of every kind proliferated, from (to name two flicks I reviewed that pretty much conform to the 1950s and 1970s types I mentioned) 1960's countryside-in-peril classic chiller Village of the Damned to 1969's genetically-enhanced-psycho-on-the-loose freakout Scream and Scream Again*. The same goes for the review styles on offer in The Shrieking Sixties, from the militant joviality of Jed Raven to the affectionate, slightly mocking pieces by Chris Wood himself, to Fangoria writer Mike Hodges' brisk professionalism to a hilariously creative take on The Body Stealers by David Dent to the expert analysis of IMDB sleaze cinema guru Gavin Whitaker (whose excellent reviews on said site could make their own book) to James Brough's afore-quoted piece on The Face of Fu Manchu, my single favorite review in the book. And that's not to mention the great Neil Pike's authoritative rundown of 1965's controversial The War Game--Peter Watkins forever! The 1960s saw the apotheosis of Hammer and the glory days of American International Pictures' prestige Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but it wasn't all casks of Amontillado and increasingly delusional and complicated plans to reanimate dead flesh. To give an example of some of The Shrieking Sixties' far-reaching and eclectic nature, the 1967 section features (adjacently, no less) Paul Higson's review of The Return of Dracula, a low-budget 8-mm curio filmed, performed, and exhibited entirely in British Sign Language, and Darrell's review of Ruddigore, a "Halas/Batchelor animated version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta." Exciting as it was to see my own stuff in print, more exciting by far was the prospect of getting to read that of others. The book really does capture the essence of the British Horror Films board, one of the nicest (with the occasional tussle, to be sure) and most erudite on the web, and it's a real kick to see people wax hilarious and thoughtful on some of their favorite films. As if that weren't enough, there are appendices on "borderline" titles, censorship, short films, an afterword by noted film historian and English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby, and illustrations throughout by Sam Trafford and Jed Raven (the former does a particularly ravishing Barbara Shelley in his rendition of Quatermass and the Pit).

The Shrieking Sixties was pre-released for the Southend Film Festival in May (a rollicking event, I hear, featuring stars Hilary Dwyer and Nicky Henson of Michael Reeves' 1968 classic The Witchfinder General, one of the commonly agreed highlights of British horror cinema of the decade), and is now available in the United States from Amazon or from Midnight Marquee Press--the latter offering, I understand, a discount if one orders directly from their site (some ways down the page). It's gratifying to learn that there's already been a bit of positive comment.

*Both of which I review in the book, by the way.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:05 AM EDT
Updated: 24 August 2010 9:18 AM EDT
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31 July 2010
Untaken Words
Now Playing: Sarah McLachlan--"Loving You Is Easy"

On the 27th of November, 1992, I started keeping a reading log, marking down the titles and authors of books I'd read, their dates, and completion times. I kept it for nearly the next decade, stopping midway through grad school. It starts with Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and ends with K.N. Chaudhuri's Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean (finished the 14th of August, 2000). Allegedly, in the interim I read over seven hundred books, with, you can be sure, varying degrees of intensity and interest. Sometimes I'd become so passionate about a book that I'd devour it in an afternoon. Others I'd have on the backburner for months, putting several out of their misery in a single day (by reading the few chapters of each I had left). At one time, this possession of such an artifact might have seemed embarrassing; it's definitely redolent of a time when I set great store in ideas I view skeptically nowadays--the importance of a core group of "Western" authors ("Dead White Males," to use the hoary terminology of the much-ballyhooed 90s "culture wars")* and the importance of quantifying what one had read, as if whatever wisdom there was to be gleaned automatically settled itself in the personal consciousness once one had finished the book. Needless to say, I don't even think of doing that anymore, except for the occasional blog post. I'm very glad I don't, but I'm also glad I kept the beat-up old green folder around.

It was a pretty central part of my personality in young adulthood, and as such should probably be given a place of honor among my stuff just for that. It's also fun to go back and track my reading habits. I'd been a little worried that some of these works wouldn't ring the slightest bell, but that's only true of a cople--Patti Waldmeir's Anatomy of a Miracle (2 August 1997) and Valentina Cilescu's Mistress Mine (23 April 1998).** There were likes and fascinations for which I'd never have time today--seriously, Richard Brautigan??? It also appears that I had a fondness (half-remembered) for the eighties writer John Calvin Batchelor (whose brand of geopolitically-tinged, slightly magical realist thrillers I don't see today--maybe it's a good thing, and I'm not surprised to find he's become a right-wing radio host). When the years end up in grad school, it's nice to see that I was able to fit in a little John Buchan and Andrew Vachss (whose stuff I really need to revisit) and even Ernest Tidyman (Goodbye, Mr. Shaft--basically "Shaft in London") among some of the weightier tomes assigned for class (all of them recorded, of course). The roll call characteristically stops in summer 2000 at Chaudhuri's classic history of the world economy's navel before the global rise of Europe, a book I didn't actually have to read but which I did anyway as I thought it would give me a better handle on some of the background issues.

Probably the best thing about the reading log is how many memories it almost instantly calls up. Reading's always been important to me (beginning in pre-school with blacklistee--not that I obviously knew that at the time--Crockett Johnson's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon) and adding dates to titles reinforces these automatic impressions. Michael Moorcock's The Laughter of Carthage (11 April 1994) provoked a near-half-hour conversation on the Punic Wars with an old guy who used to hang out outside the Salem, Virginia, Public Library and looked like a clean-shaven Solzhenitsyn (himself well-represented earlier in the log). Roddy Doyle's The Snapper and The Van (14 and 18 July 1996) struck a painful chord with me at a time when I was completely at sea about life and semi-employed just after college. Jake Page's Apacheria (13 July 1998) led to some sadly truncated flirting with a girl at the Thirsty Tiger bar in downtown Baton Rouge (Josephus' The Jewish Wars of 22 June 1998 provoked similar memories of M's Fine and Mellow Cafe--now the lackluster Roux House). And so on. It's comforting to know that books have always been there to engross me or buck me up when I was feeling too self-absorbed (as opposed to normal) or depressed. There were a few stretches where things were so horrible that I just stopped recording or reading, but only a few. With the onset of grad school and the growing desire to create rather than consume (I figured I'd read enough books and ought to try writing some), it seemed less and less important to keep a record. I stopped reading so obsessively, which on balance was a good thing, and started writing more, becoming more interested and proactive with films and music. Reading's still important to me, but there's not as much self-imposed pressure to do it, and my life feels freer as a result, even if there are still a few atavistic moments where I don't think I'm reading enough.

It also reminds me of the days when I used to own far too many books. Perhaps even more than reading them, buying them or owning them was a poisoned comfort, and inevitably led to me giving away or selling most of my "stock." I now try and follow a system wherein I'll cull my collection if it rises above a certain limit (I think I've got about a hundred books now, maybe less, and it should stay that way). One of my favorite haunts in adolescence and young adulthood was Elliott's Books in Baton Rouge, where many of my attitudes towards reading were formed and molded. There was a sticker on one of the cash registers which said something along the lines of "if you still have book space (or even if you don't), you don't have enough books." I was really happy to eventually realize what bullshit that was. Still, that hasn't prevented me from winding up over the past couple of months with a number of books I own that I haven't read. It's okay; some time back the pile would have been ten times the size. So, for the next month or thereabouts...

Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century Heian classic The Tale of Genji (which I've probably been meaning to read throughout the whole time I kept the reading log), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen! (part of her "Darkover" series, the first novel of which, 1972's Darkover Landfall, I read some time back and then left alone), Samuel Eliot Morison's Christopher Columbus, Mariner (one of the books I often wish I hadn't given away was Morison's classic Maritime History of Massachusetts--but it went to a scholar specializing in the maritime history of the Great Lakes, so hopefully it's being put to good use), George Kennedy's Murder on Location ("Actor George Kennedy stars in a new role as sleuth--when murder on the set turns the cast into corpses!"--why I didn't instantly read this the day I picked it off the fifty-cent rack at Dawn Treader will forever be a mystery to me), Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (in keeping with my newfound half-interest in biology--it's supposed to be good on nineteenth-century South America, too), Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires (basis for the inexplicably beloved 1985 Tobe Hooper cinematic turkey Lifeforce), and Laurie Notaro's Spooky Little Girl (the second novel from one of my favorite contemporary writers, mainly known as a comic essayist). If I can lay off the bird and gardening books and travel guides for a couple of weeks at some point, I might be able to finally out those away, and try to remember that finishing them isn't the point.

* Although these days I have a little more time for that idea, but it's more a case that one doesn't have to devalue "classic" authors in order to make room for a more inclusive canon. Considering how fragmented and kaleidoscopic pop culture has become (and how negatively I can react to it sometimes, especially when it comes to the internet), it's nice to have a kind of conceptual anchor.

**Waldmeir's book, apparently, was a journalistic account of the end of apartheid in South Africa, while Cilescu's was a work of erotica. I vaguely remember George Alec Effinger's The Wolves of Memory (13 March 1994) as a scifi novel that involved interplanetary travel, but that's all that comes to mind.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:50 AM EDT
Updated: 31 July 2010 6:14 PM EDT
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19 July 2010
Tickled By Onions
Now Playing: Brasstronaut--"Lo Hi Hopes"

A mid-life crisis, I would expect, is a very personalized phenomenon, and I think mine may well have finally struck. One might think it would have been something dramatic and attention-getting (my favorite portrayal in pop culture terms is probably Matthew's reverting to an English punk at turning thirty on NewsRadio). I suppose I should be thankful that it isn't (and that I'm not trolling Conor O'Neill's Friday and Saturday nights or out buying a sports car--not that I could), but mine might be a little more alarming, if I weren't convinced it was a mere passing phase.

I'm not interested in anything anymore. Or at least I haven't been, in staggered phases over the past few weeks. Part of this may well be down to the fact that I've been taking on a number of extra duties at work (or, more to the point, worrying about taking on a number of extra duties at work), and that I've been staying inside to avoid the heat after an ostensibly harmless birdwatching trip out to Barton Park (before noon!) wound up in a mild case of possible heat-stroke (or whatever's a lot milder). Part may be to down to my increasing alienation from pop culture. It's not just getting older, either--I haven't seen a movie in the theater since Star Trek (unless you count the Cinematic Titanic presentation of 1972's The Oozing Skull at the Michigan*) and after I lost the return envelope to my Netflix delivery of The Hurt Locker, it took me almost three months to send it back; I just couldn't be bothered. There are hardly any new bands that inspire me (yet) and even my fondness for the "Long Tail" (movies, music, TV made before the "present moment") has dissipated to some extent. It doesn't help that I can hardly go to a site on the Internet without seeing all that dopey slang that hits me like nails on a chalkboard (FTW! I'm looking at you, [insert noun or verb or whatever], FAILFAILFAIL, etc.) and have, for various reasons, cooled on some of my favorite sites, even ones that were second online "homes". My writing's been stalling for the past couple of months, and though I know you can't force it, it's been a little irritating. And then, of course, there's the lack of blogging (which may be the longest I've gone without since I started this thing five years ago).

Conversations at work suggest that disillusionments with each are just natural phases, but it's a little unnerving that they've all struck at the same time. Ever since I can remember, I've always loved watching movies. I've always loved reading. I started writing at a fairly early age, and though it took me a while to become in any way savvy regarding music, I caught up with a vengeance during grad school and after (maybe too much). These have been constants for practically my entire life, and it's a little chilling to think that one or more can just wink out, however temporarily, like a guttering candle. As I write this, I'm listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras on BBC 3. It's wonderful and I love it, but I've gone some time without listening to a single uninterrupted stretch of orchestral or indeed any other music at home until I put on Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe a few hours ago. I just can't be bothered. I'll read a few articles online, surf a few sites, maybe read through a book or two or watch a soccer match (I have gotten into Major League Soccer and SuperLiga 2010 after the conclusion of the World Cup, and that's been a lot of fun) before I go to bed, but there's no application, and that's really something I have to get back. I started trying today. There's only so long I can go before blaming the weather sounds even more ridiculous.

Hoosiers (1986): As with so many great 80s classics, I managed to make it for decades without seeing this one. Gene Hackman is characteristically exceptional (he was even the best thing about Superman, which admittedly wasn't hard--sorry, Jon, if you're reading), but the movie as a whole seemed a little light to me. Some of it's refreshing, as apart from Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper (who was nominated for an Oscar, at about the same time as his classic Saturday Night Live hosting gig), there aren't any "name" actors in it. The closest I came to recognizing offhand was Chelcie Ross, the guy who played Harris in Major League, as a local who feels threatened by the appearance of Norman Dale (Hackman) as a high school basketball coach in 1951 rural Indiana. Dale's got a "troubled loner with a past" thing going on, but he uses it in the service of his team and their slow but steady progress to the state championship. This was actually a pretty good choice to try and break out of this grinding ennui, as not a lot seems to actually happen. Basketball-crazed locals try to thwart Dale and his crazy newfangled ideas about coaching, Dale falls in love with teacher Myra Fleener (Hershey), town drunk Shooter (Hopper) finds redemption and respect from his basketball-player son as an assistant coach, and it's all very laid-back and weirdly soothing. David Anspaugh's no-frills direction fill out the countryside nicely--there are several scenes that I might have biked through earlier in the summer (if they weren't in Indiana). Hackman's introspective masculinity works brilliantly, but I can't help feeling that he and the film are a little mismatched. Still, it was a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Ossessione (1943): A rather more bracing way to spend it was by watching Luchino Visconti's spectacular debut, one of the most important forbears of the Italian neo-realist movement later in the decade and the source of major controversy in then-Fascist Italy (the authorities believed they were about to see a simple love story and then banned it near-instantly and nearly destroyed it forever). Visconti would later be famous for some of the more sumptuous and opulent entries in Italian cinema (1963's The Leopard is still probably the most perfect match of cinematic style and substance I've seen), but started his career off with a bang by adapting James M. Cain's classic The Postman Always Rings Twice to northern Italy. Gino (Massimo Girotti) happens along a roadside trattoria run by a grotesque buffoon and his sexy wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Gino and Giovanna immediately start and affair and decide to do away with the husband. Of course, things aren't that simple, and the two lovers find themselves in hotter water than planned. It starts off slowly, but quickly builds up speed, like the cars along the autostrada who figure so prominently in the story. Visconti's revolutionary, sweaty, realistic treatment of characters and setting was worlds away from the "white telephone" melodramas so popular during Mussolini's regime; there seems little doubt in hindsight about the success of the new way of doing things. Girotti is hugely charismatic (the start of another long story in Italian film) and the ravishing Calamai (never more alluring when she threatens Girotti with blackmail or exposure) would finish her career in Dario Argento's 1975 classic Deep Red, bookending two enormously influential Italian contributions to world cinema. Great stuff and well worth a look.

* Cinematic Titanic, for those who don't know, is a troupe composed of Mystery Science Theater 3000 creators and writers Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, and especially Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, who travel the country riffing on the kind of film fare MST3K made famous. I was a little worried that the act, love it though I did, wouldn't translate to the stage. I couldn't have been more wrong, especially after seeing 90s TV fixture Dave "Gruber" Allen take the stage as a warm-up act. He wasn't that great, to be honest, but anyone who's been on NewsRadio twice... well, words fail me. Being in the same theater with that assemblage, especially Conniff and Pehl, was like--actually, vastly better than--meeting the Pope.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:47 PM EDT
Updated: 20 July 2010 12:06 AM EDT
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25 May 2010
Tears of Pomona
Now Playing: Deerhunter--"VHS Dream"

The garden is planted, "garden" maybe a rather pompous term for a planter box with one sorrel plant and four peppers (two Anaheim, two habanero). Nevertheless, garden it is. The planter box I'm using is called an "Earthbox" and works on the water table system; a plastic box gets filled with potting mix, but with a screen at the bottom to create a water reservoir, fed through a pipe in the corner. The top gets covered with a plastic cover that operates as mulch, with holes cut for the plants. I started almost a week ago, and it seems to be doing pretty well. I had a brief scare towards the end of the first day, when the sorrel had deflated like a popped balloon, but it seems that it was only getting used to the new conditions, for the next day it perked back up admirably. The mulch is getting a little frayed and torn; I'm not sure if that's due to the natural effect of the elements (it rained a lot early last weekend) or the nocturnal visits of raccoons. The plants show a bit of insect damage and blight on a couple of leaves, but overall appear to be right on course. The box is on casters, so I can roll it back and forth, and I'd planned to move it all around the house as the most consistent sunlight is in the northeast (the driveway) and the southwest (where it's broken up by pretty thick tree cover). Fortunately, I found a sweet spot just east of the driveway where there's pretty decent light for most of the day; I expect any movement will just be for the sake of the grass underneath.

I finally caved and bought a camera, too, which still feels a little weird, as I haven't owned one since I was about fifteen. Once people stopped making film for the Kodak Instamatic, there didn't seem much point. Even during the past decade or so, when everyone's public personae depended more and more on the constant snapping of photos, there didn't seem much urgency (I didn't have a car, the internet or--by and large--TV either, so one more nonconformity, however partially voluntary, didn't make much difference, I thought). I did get a really cheap one at an office supply store which turned out to be a damp squib; I took a few crappy pictures with it and then the sheer uselessness of the thing hit me. It correspondingly took a while for me to get used to the notion again. The idea for this one occurred when I realized I was going to be spending a lot more purposeful time outside this spring and summer--riding the bike outside the city, gardening at home or at work, and other possible projects I'm considering. It'd be nice to have a pictorial record of that and be able to share it with others, especially friends of mine elsewhere in the States or abroad, as, infuriating as Ann Arbor can frequently become, it's a pretty good-looking town (downtown, anyway) and the natural areas can be quite breathtaking. I ended up getting a Canon PowerShot SX120, and it's worked magnificently so far. My standard ride down Bandemer and Argo Parks before work has now been exhaustively documented, and I was able to break it out, too, for my friend Sara's birthday, where we again congregated at a local area to pull invasive weeds, mainly dame's rocket and garlic mustard.* It takes really good shots, and I'm starting to be able to handle the "manual" setting--where you can specifically control things like exposure and focus and such--rather well. The pictures have so far been too big to comfortably fit on the blog (too many pixels and such), but I may be able to fix that soon. In the meantime, no event or occurrence, however small, will go unphotographed (said the man who spent a good five minutes trying to line up a shot of turtles mating at Gallup Park**).

The Rules of the Game (1939): Jean Renoir was probably the most famous and prestigious French film director of the early sound era, and for me he came highly recommended through the classic Grand Illusion (1937), the renowned World War I prisoner-of-war drama, and his superb La Marseillaise (1938), a rousing Popular Front-era celebration of the ideals and events of the French Revolution (and a snarky corrective to more negative portrayals of the period by Hollywood films of the decade such as 1935's The Scarlet Pimpernel). The Rules of the Game (or Le Regle de Jeu) is somewhat in the same vein, and is one of those movies that critics often praise as one of the greatest of all time. I quite enjoyed it myself. It's essentially an extended bedroom farce set in contemporary France with a light examination of the class differences between workers, the bourgeoisie, and the still surviving aristocracy (intriguingly depicted in this specific instance as being Jewish--a telling nod to the relative diversity of French society even in that era and in hindsight a grim foreshadowing of the next six years). Transatlantic aviator Jurieu (Roland Toutain) flies into Paris to find his lover Christine (Nora Gregor) absent, and bitches her out on national radio. Christine's husband, the aristocratic La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), encourages her to invite the pilot out to their country house for the weekend. A riotous series of events quickly ensues, as the pilot and lover make up and fall out and La Chesnaye's own lover starts to undergo what looks like a nervous breakdown. As if that weren't enough, the local poacher (Julien Carette) has been hired on La Chesnaye's whim, much to the chagrin of his arch-enemy, La Chesnaye's gamekeeper (Gaston Modot, whose wife, played by Paulette Dubost, the poacher instantly tries to seduce). Indulgently enjoying the whole mess is Octave, friend to all, whose portrayal by Renoir himself places the director squarely in the center of things and probably gave the architects of the auteur theory plenty of meat twenty years later. It all ends in a somewhat understated tragedy, as life carries on as it did before (the last shot is of the haute monde going back inside the house), but with the prospect of future trouble ominously present (the servants make catty remarks about La Chesnaye's Jewish ancestry, and his wife is herself a refugee from Nazi Austria). I can see why it's such a cinematic icon--Renoir somehow manages to ably satirize all classes and people without losing sight of a common vision of humanity and cooperation. The film was banned in France for being "defeatist," and wasn't released again until the late 1950s, by which time Renoir had become widely respected as one of the great titans of French cinema. The Criterion DVD comes with a feisty intro from Renoir himself done about the time of the film's rerelease--well worth watching.

Avanti! (1972): One of Billy Wilder's last great comedies is an entertaining yet tonally weird romp through southern Italy (murder is involved at one point) in the company of a free-spirited young British woman and a middle-aged American businessman who have come to bury their respective parents, the latter having perished, to the businessman's surprise, in a car crash and in each other's arms. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon), has only a few days before his father's funeral is scheduled to take place in Baltimore and is shocked not only at the thicket of red tape that suddenly obstruct his path but also at the fresh revelations concerning his father's life, particularly a decade-long liaison with "Kate." Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), Kate's daughter, finds it all rather less surprising, and positively blossoms under the cumulative effect of Italy (much unlike Wendell). The two soon lock horns regarding the ultimate destinations of their parents' remains and things get tricky when, not only do the bodies mysteriously vanish, but Wendell and Pamela start to fall in love. The wily hotel manger Sr. Carlucci (Clive Revill) is thankfully on hand to speed things up--or slow them down, as need be. Avanti! is a fun film, but it doesn't cruise along quite as nimbly as Wilder's inimitable classics. The script, from a stage play by Samuel A. Taylor (and helped along by the legendary Richard Rodgers), is often extremely funny but frequently laden with one too many "rimshot" moments and the many topical references, though cutting-edge and current for the time, help to date the film a little more obviously than many others of its ilk. There's a fair amount of nudity, which is, of course, rarely a bad thing (even Lemmon bares all, though no full-frontal), but seems, in the context of a classic Golden Age director like Wilder making a film in the more ostensibly permissive early 1970s, like college-age playwrights filling their script with variations on "fuck" because they aren't in high school anymore (the University of Michigan's Basement Arts is a prime example, or at least it was when I had the misfortune to see one of their shows a few years back; Arthur Miller went to Michigan, you know). It may be an unjust criticism on my part, but I couldn't help feeling that the man who gave us Double Indemnity could have been a little more artful.*** The film's attitude to relationships seems a little off; Wendell would obviously benefit tremendously from a relationship with Pamela, but it seems a little hard on his wife Emily, only experienced as an unheard voice on the telephone. The sexual politics on offer appear to be those of the Rotary Club weekend (I'd say something about Mad Men, but I've never seen it). Considering the people involved, it's almost as if C.C. Baxter married Fran Kubelik after the end of The Apartment, won big on the company ladder, and then decided to start cheating on her. It may just be my relative hindsight, but I think Wilder's a little too accommodating of our hero in the matter. Fortunately, the whole thing is brilliantly sold by the cast, especially the leads. Lemmon does his usual sterling job, falling ever so slightly under Pamela's and Italy's spell yet retaining his smartass sense of self. As for Mills, I don't remember her having any other major film lead roles (she'd just come off the cult American TV show Nanny and the Professor and would later win notoriety as witch Tabitha, in the gloriously batshit NBC soap of the aughties, Passions), and she's divine in Avanti! The script saddles her with a weird hangup on her being "fat" (she apparently put on twenty-five pounds to play the role), another unwelcome indication (as in other films like I Am Curious: Yellow) of the long pedigree of the current obsession with thinness. Mills not only manages to transcend the potential degradation of such a fixation but also deftly sidesteps sliding into the dreaded "manic pixie dream-girl" mode thirty years before Natalie Portman failed to do so (if she even tried) in Garden State. Revill (who would deliver a memorable turn the following year as a snarly parapsych debunker in the Brit horror classic The Legend of Hell House) is great as the film's comic enabler and a host of little-seen (by me, anyway) Italian actors round out the local cast. While a little off in places, Avanti! is well worth a look, as a generally fun film and an interesting juncture between the cinematic worlds of Golden Age Hollywood and some of the romantic comedies--better romantic comedies, anyway--of the next four decades. Nice, too, to see a film about people discovering themselves in Italy that doesn't involve Tuscany at all.

Eliana, Eliana (2002): "Now on DVD, the film that revolutionized the Indonesian film industry!" Says the back cover, at any rate. I wish I'd known there was one readily available when this rather compelling little flick came out, the same year I was teaching classes on the history and culture of Southeast Asia at the University of Akron. The best remotely indigenous title I could rustle up to show students was John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), a turgid piece of work involving Hong Kong Chinese caught up in the Vietnam War. We ended up watching The Killing Fields, which is a fantastic film (even if Julian Sands shows up for a bit), but I would have liked something that actually came from Southeast Asia.**** If only I had access to Eliana, Eliana then... Written (with Prima Rusdi) and directed by Riri Riza, Eliana, Eliana tells a rather universal story within the framework of the Jakarta slums, where Eliana (Rachel Maryam Sayidina) lives with her roommate Heni (Hemidar Amru), after having fled to Java from her Padang home when confronted with the possibility of an arranged marriage by her mother (referred to as "Bunda," which I understand is a common maternal term, and played by Jajang C. Noer). Eliana ekes out a life of crappy jobs and returns one day to find her roommate nowhere to be found on rent day and her mother basically waiting on her doorstep. Eliana spends the rest of the film in the supremely unenviable position of wandering around Jakarta--the biggest city in Southeast Asia--looking for Heni and some rent money while being nagged by Bunda all along. There's some respite in aid and moral support from friendly taxi driver Jamu (Arswendi Nasution), and it becomes clear as mother and daughter navigate the treacherous, sexual harassment-clogged streets of Jakarta that they may have more in common than they realize. Eliana, Eliana is maybe most striking, at least to me, for being filmed on live-action video, and it seems to make a difference as far as the somewhat overheated performances are concerned. Where if they were on film I might take them a little less seriously, the acting, and its air of slightly heightened reality, seems much more appropriate and powerful in this filming medium, and maintained my interest throughout (as did the relatively--visually, anyway--unfamiliar locations). It's almost like a soap opera with important things genuinely at stake. The highlight of the movie is probably Jajang Noer, whose west Sumatran matron, confronted with the uncertainties of the big city, responds with a pluck that might seem cloyingly and smotheringly manipulative of the audience were it not for her obvious and unjust dismissal of her daughter's abilities. The comments on IMDB are usually only slightly more useful than those on YouTube (that is to say, not at all), but the notes on Eliana, Eliana point towards an Indonesian film industry (heavily Javanese, I'd suspect) whose surface may have yet to be really scratched by American film distributors. This is an area I'll definitely have to revisit, if only to find more unlikely gems like Eliana, Eliana.

*Unfortunately, we hit the garlic mustard this year after it had gone to seed, and it tastes quite bitter as a result. I found out, though, that it works rather well if you pair it with a strong dressing or other accompaniment in a salad, in order to cancel or alleviate some of the bitterness. It also seems to do okay used in lieu of parsley in meatballs, which I made for the subsequent picnic.

**That's what I was told, anyway, by the couple next to me when I was trying to take the picture. They had been to the Galapagos and seen sea turtles getting jiggy in that fashion (I didn't know if they meant regular turtles or the specifically awe-inspiring variety for which the Islas Encantadas are world-renowned). There were so many, though, and the one definite shot I caught showed a flash of what looked like pink flesh, that it may simply have been a mass of overactive fish--which bodes well for one of the other projects I'm considering.

***Wilder fled to the States after the Nazis took over Austria in 1938; I'm not terribly familiar with his early career in Austria and Hungary, but he may well have been involved with more risque material than was acceptable in Golden Age Hollywood. 

****There was a longstanding and mystifying attachment (on the literary as opposed to cinematic front) to the novel The Ugly American, by Lederer and Burdick, on the part of the World Civilizations Program's Southeast Asia subsection, which was basically a clunky fictional blueprint for the Kennedy Administration's policy towards Vietnam, as well as an endorsement for some of the more perniciously imperialistic tendencies of the Peace Corps. I thought of offering Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind, but went instead for his shorter but less accessible The Fugitive, about a returning anti-Japanese partisan after the Second World War. I sometimes wonder what they're doing now, or if the World Civilizations program is even still around.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:25 AM EDT
Updated: 25 May 2010 11:04 PM EDT
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15 May 2010
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Now Playing: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention--"Hungry Freaks, Daddy"

The 12th of May, 2010, was one of the strangest days I've had for a while. The weirdness mainly came down to the way in which it started. I woke up around five in the morning to the sound of people screaming at each other outside. I thought it might have just been the standard din of "America's future leaders" rolling down the sidewalk on the way home from whatever afterhours beer pong bacchanalia was going on over on Walnut or Linden. Sadly, the screaming continued, and I managed to shoehorn myself out of bed and stagger down to the front door. Looking between the slats of the front door blinds, I saw a guy and a girl yelling and gesticulating, the girl threatening to call the cops, and the guy sarcastically encouraging her to do so. In between all this, I reckoned that much of their disagreement must have been down to someone named "Kelly." There wasn't much else I could glean, save that the girl thought she was being kicked out of the guy's house and that the guy's yelling back (if she had started it at all) wasn't helping. As their behavior obviously indicated that they wanted the entire neighborhood to know their business, I tried my damnedest to eavesdrop on the whole story. It was the least I could do, really, especially after being woken up. The whole nature of my morning changed, though, when he started moving towards her rather aggressively (the best spin I could put on that was that he may have been trying to take her cell phone off her). I then threw the door open and said, "If you hit her, I'll call the cops." This sounds sillier or more melodramatic than it actually was, believe me; it must have looked a lot more like a "you damn kids better get off my lawn" reaction than anything else. The guy protested that they were just having a "spat," and the girl ran off. It suddenly hit me that these two had been through a similar deal a few months back, as she had headed down Geddes in the exact same way--presumably she lived over that way. We live in a very student-"rich" area, so it's a little hard to keep track of these things. The guy snarks at me the same way he did at the girl, and nearly made a move to gain the porch. He stopped and apparently thought better of it (which, though a relief, was a little odd, as I'm not the most threatening physical specimen), going back inside his house (which is hideously ugly, by the way--not that ours is relatively unsightly, but his makes our place look like the Alhambra). I went back inside, thinking (a) I'd gotten them apart for a possible cooling-off period, (b) I'd also gotten them off our driveway, which the guy mistakenly identified as "his property," and (c) I'd be able to go back to sleep. It was only as I later failed at (c) that I realized how odd I felt. I am not a confrontational person. It almost certainly derives, like most things, from childhood issues, but it's also been rather beneficial for me in many ways--being able to see two sides to every issue, etc. It certainly doesn't sound like much, but I felt like I'd stepped over a threshold of sorts (I suppose literally). I was a trifle off-kilter for the rest of the morning. I went in to work to help with gardening, though the miserable weather has once again postponed planting my own garden (see below). I had a decent chat with our garden coordinator over the possibility of gardening on a more formal basis (essentially taking over her position after she moves to North Carolina this summer), and, after cruising the farmer's market, had a delicious lunch of grilled mackerel and rice on the new noodle bar at Liberty and Thompson. After getting home and starting some chicken stock (I've been meaning to make a new batch for a while), I noticed a police car outside and saw the girl talking with a cop in our yard (I suppose she didn't want to be in the guy's "property"). No idea what happened, although that she went ahead and called the cops suggests something a little more serious. I don't know whether to feel pleased that I was able to stop things before they might have gotten really ugly (however relatively inadvertently) or just creeped out at being in such proximity to such a sketchy situation.

This week in general has been unusually productive. I finally decided to take the leap and plant a garden, though the strange repelling effect my house seems to have on the sun has forced me to get creative. On a work supply visit to Downtown Home and Garden, an estimable Ann Arbor institution, I noticed the existence of "Earthboxes," mobile mini-gardens that work on the water-table system. They seemed like just the thing, and I picked one up and later got potting soil for it. Hopefully today I'll be getting leeks, peppers, and fennel from the farmer's market, and probably plant tomorrow morning. The weather over the past few weeks has been strangely cool; every time I got ready to bite the bullet and grab some seedlings, it's either dropped to fifty or started raining (I suppose it's better than getting a last blast of snow). Now it finally looks like I'm in with a chance. I think I might still get a pot for a tomato plant and some basil, to be a little more traditional; there's a place on our front walk that would be perfect for it. I don't think there'll be a yield big enough for more than one or two dishes, but if I can prove to myself that I can do it, I might actually splurge for a plot at one of the community gardens next season.

I also sent off a story. One of my colleagues on the BHF drew my attention to Pill Hill Press, which puts out themed anthologies every few months, and is publishing one on werewolves entitled Silver Moon, Bloody Bullets, due out this summer. I've been discussing with work chums the growing stylistic bankruptcy of vampires and zombies, and the idea of exploring lycanthropy appealed to me, as did the short notice on the anthology, the deadline for which was Saturday. I knocked out a piece that I maybe think could use a little more flesh on its bones, but which stands alone pretty well, formatted it to the guidelines, and sent it off. It'll be only over the next few days, I think, that it truly sinks in what a big step this has been for me. I've been published before in the BHF anthologies, but that was originally by invitation for the first, and so submitting two more for the third didn't seem as forbidding as it might have. Ever since I started writing, I've only submitted "blind" twice, both in situations where the stories were quite unsuited to their destinations. I doubt this one will make it, but the threshold I've crossed (this has been the week for them, apparently) will make it easier for me to do this in the future, I think, and there are a few more themed anthologies coming out that might be more up my alley if this one doesn't work out. This year, while not as eventful, maybe, as last year's, is really shaping up to be a formative one.

The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983): The personally influential Nickelodeon series The Third Eye, which I've mentioned earlier on this screen in connection with Children of the Stones, delivered one more intriguing entry of children's supernatural fare before going off the air, apparently as a result of Nickelodeon's decision to retool around 1984, a decision that would lead to shows like the deeply loathsome Double Dare. Having already introduced malleable American viewers to a number of British series involving kids mixed up with the supernatural (and one New Zealander program, 1981's Under the Mountain), The Third Eye gave us this offbeat 1983 tale of cuddly tea-cozy witchcraft and then lamentably skeddadled. I vividly remember as a kid Nickelodeon starting to go down the tubes around this time, and it was probably for that reason. I didn't get to see all of The Witches and the Grinnygog back then. I was hooked for something like the first and second episodes, and then the combination of the titular unnerving stone idol and what I thought was a creepy scene with a disembodied voice coming from an attic scared me shitless and actually gave me nightmares. I'd like to report a surfeit of embarrassment on finally righting an almost thirty-year-old wrong (i.e. finally seeing the whole thing, fittingly enough given the story's subject matter) at the very idea of The Witches and the Grinnygog being scary. The Witches and the Grinnygog was based on the Whitbread-shortlisted children's book by Dorothy Edwards, and put out by TV South, an upstart independent station in southeast England that had a brief run of success in the 1980s, co-producing Fraggle Rock, among other things. A small village in southern England (interesting to compare this contemporary portrayal of the Thatcherite era with more northerly examples like Billy Elliot and Shane Meadows' compelling This Is England) suddenly finds itself beset with all manner of strange doings as the local vicar (Robert Swann, most famous in my house for the elegantly cruel Rowntree of Lindsay Anderson's if...) tries to stop the redevelopment of his church and everyone prepares for the village fete. It all revolves around the appearance of a mysterious gargoyle-like statue and three strange old women, one of whom apparently has a mannequin for a daughter. A band of kids--the vicar's and their more working-class friends--try to figure out what's going on, with the occasional help of the mysterious Dr. Alabaster (Olu Jacobs), an African academic who knows more than he's telling. The whole thing's supremely weird, and that I ever had trouble getting to sleep on its account will henceforth rank as one of my chief childhood shames. That's not to say it's bad at all. Its weirdness and relative lack of tension make for a refreshingly offbeat feel, as does the portrayal of village life. This isn't a Miss Marple story with the dates changed; the kids and the vicar are all seen listening to what clearly sounds like New Order and the Human League on the radio (interestingly, the YouTube upload for the finale of Part One features, on the side, the video for Real Life's "Send Me An Angel") and Mrs. Firkettle, the working-class kids' mother, has very realistic worries about losing her job in a department store. The appearance of Mr. Alabaster (and a bus driver of Asian descent) gives a refreshingly diverse twist for the time. The story revolves around an ancient injustice needing to be put right, but the tension never really quite results in the payoff one might expect. The title idol has its moments of creepiness, but none that really justify, even in retrospect, robbing me of sleep. Even so, it's a pleasantly offbeat trip down memory lane, and a laid-back, pressure-free way to scratch off some long-neglected unfinished business.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:31 AM EDT
Updated: 15 May 2010 10:40 AM EDT
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