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Washtenaw Flaneurade
30 January 2011
High-Octane Ennui
Now Playing: Wolf Parade--"Two Men In New Tuxedos"

I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater in late 1994. It was a very strange time for me; I'd just gotten back to college (in Virginia) from a family funeral, it was the middle of the weekend and my friends were all off doing other things, so I found myself at looser ends than usual. For lack of anything else, I drove down to the Grandin Theater in Roanoke and saw that Pulp Fiction was playing. Why not, eh? The girl at the counter (who I recognized from campus as a friend of friends) asked me if I'd seen it before, and the sly look that passed across her face at my "no" was alluringly alarming. I went in, sat down, and was promptly blown away. I remember being a Tarantino nut for a year thanks to Pulp Fiction, even to the extent of reacting rather sharply to my John Woo-loving friend's tearing apart plot holes in her own criticism of the film (pot kettle black, of course, when it comes to John Woo, but I should have been more sportsmanlike about the whole thing). I had earlier encountered QT in Reservoir Dogs, which I'd seen with my friend Rob that summer, but somehow didn't really link the two together (it's gone steadily down in my estimation since then). After Pulp Fiction, I didn't keep careful track of the man's movements, and his screechingly annoying segment in Four Rooms--which at least has a happy ending, I guess--pretty much dampened my enthusiasm for good. Since then, he became something of an artistic figure of fun for me (even though I heard--and hear--that 1996's Jackie Brown was really good).* I had--and have--no desire to Kill Bill, and one may well ask what possessed me to revisit his work in the past couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember. 

Inglourious Basterds (2009): "Ah-haaaa! He got the spelling wrong! Oh... oh, yeah. It's '"'"'"'ironic.'"'"'"' Go to hell." On a superficial level (not that there's really anything else here), Tarantino's Second World War orgy of self-indulgence is a remake/homage of Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 actioner Inglorious Bastards, with Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, and Ian Bannen (and just the mere typing of that cast does make me want to see it a little). Curious to see what the great middlebrow authority Leonard Maltin (formerly my film Moses) thought of it, it looks like the verdict was "great scenes in search of a movie." There's a fair amount of truth to that, although I don't think many of them were all that great. A group of Jewish GIs (including the majestically obnoxious Eli Roth, The Office's B.J. Novak, and--huzza!--Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine), led by Appalachian mystery man Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)--well, I wonder where that name came from. I think QT may have seen old movies before and enjoyed them. Let me start over. A group of Jewish GIs, etc. etc. are dumped into Festung Europa in 1944 to basically massacre Nazis in conjunction with the big invasion. They, and a gutsy Jewish resistance fighter named Shoshanna (the excellent Melanie Laurent, who deserved better), find themselves in opposition to the wily SS Colonel Hans Landa (the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz), and lots and lots and lots of people get killed, including Goebbels and Hitler under circumstances that, spoiler alert, do not match the historical record. I'd heard that last bit was going to happen, and I was fine with it, in much the same way that I loved A Knight's Tale, despite the fact that people in the fourteenth century didn't enjoy Queen or David Bowie for obvious reasons. My problems with Inglourious Basterds lay elsewhere. If Donnie Darko was the kind of movie I (all other things being equal) would have made at seventeen (not necessarily a bad thing; I was fascinated as a result, probably more than the movie deserved), Inglourious Basterds is the one I would have made If I'd been pumped full of knowledge of interwar European cinema (about which people talk, and talk, and talk)? There's no real believable link between various scenes, and the vaunted "time-shift" qualities of Tarantino's script are really just a result of screenwriting diarrhea. Pitt is fun, and the acting is all generally fine (I think Roth's character is supposed to be obnoxious, and he's also really, really... from Boston). It's especially good to see Michael Fassbender (so good in Centurion, and so amusing in the great but really depressing Eden Lake) as the posh Brit agent who comes along for the ride. Not only do we get Hitler, but we also get Churchill, played by a much (personally) loved leading actor of the 60s I didn't even know still lived. Sadly, he has to share the screen with another relatively low-billed, and supremely off-putting cameo (the cameo actor probably reacting to the job with the same glee that drove QT to make this travesty). Waltz is great, but nowhere near the marvel he was touted in the media. This is understandable, I think, as his achievement is akin to dropping a live-action Paul Scofield into an episode of Jabberjaw. There's no emotional investment in any of the characters, and the standard goalpost-shifting many critics habitually do when it comes to Tarantino movies left me feeling a little depressed (albeit a lot more sanguine about my relative lack of attendance at the theater these days).

Death Proof (2007): He really ought to be doing more stuff like Death Proof. The second half of Grindhouse, his retro collaboration with Robert Rodriguez to resurrect the feel of 70s drive-in cinema (down to the "feature presentation" titles), Death Proof actually pleases both on a visceral level and the anything-goes cartoon world of Tarantino's cinematic influences. A party of young women in Texas are out on the town, and attract the unpleasant attentions of a mysterious stranger known as "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell) who drives around in a black Chevy Nova with a skull on the hood. Things get hilarious, then tense, then grisly, and soon Mike's back on the road again, tangling with a new bunch of ladies in Tennessee--only this time things don't go quite according to plan. It's great, trashy fun; some of the dialogue, especially in the early scenes, is comically unrealistic, but one expects these things from QT. The film starts out purposefully grainy, and there are a few other entertaining gimmicks for "historical authenticity" (despite the film's taking place in the present) that would normally piss me off but which actually come off as rather endearing. The acting is a trip--Russell is an absolute blast, from start to finish, and the women are by and large terrific. Rosario Dawson, as ever, is a delight, and Vanessa Ferlito shines as Arlene (aka "Butterfly). There are great jobs done, too, from non-actors like stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who spends much of the film sprawled atop the hood of a car going top speed down a highway). Tarantino himself inevitably shows up (and Eli Roth), but he's less of an onscreen annoyance than usual. The visual cues to other classic films (Vanishing Point in particular) are fairly apposite for a change, and it all somehow fits together. What's dangerous about Death Proof is that it might encourage me to stay halfway interested in Tarantino's work. Though the future will take care of itself, I worry.

*Things didn't improve after I read Killer Instinct, the hilarious 1997 memoir by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy of their time spent as producers of 1993's Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino wrote (full disclosure--I hated Natural Born Killers). Hamsher, of course, would go on to greater fame in the past decade as the founder of FireDogLake, the problematic online scourge of centrist Democrats (I have profoundly mixed feelings on FDL myself), and Killer Instinct is unsurprisingly full of incisive, hilarious critique of the way things are done in Hollywood. Even better are the various stories about Tarantino and director Oliver Stone (the latter racing around the Arizona desert in a cape to throw any drug-sniffing cops off the scent). The book was subject to a few lawsuits, and Murphy and Hamsher apparently ended their partnership not long after as a result. Unfortunate, but I'll always cherish the memory of seeing QT's note he passed to Hamsher at some kinnd of meeting or awards dinner extolling her "pretty legs" in the prose style of a not-particularly bright second-grader. The picture was captioned along the lines of "a work of Academy Award screenwriting nominee Quentin Tarantino."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:44 AM EST
Updated: 30 January 2011 11:39 PM EST
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31 December 2010
Easy As Cake
Now Playing: Crystal Castles (!!!)--"I Am Made Of Chalk"

2010 (subtitled The Year We Make Contact) was a pretty decent sequel to Stanley Kubrick's classic adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's "The Sentinel," overseen by British journeyman director Peter Hyams. It's a good, solid sci-fi film, and a refreshingly evenhanded plea for tolerance and goodwill among humanity (it was made in 1984 and concerned a joint US-Soviet expedition to Jupiter, not knowing that the Soviet Union would be gone within the decade). Though certainly nowhere near the classic status of its forbear, it's got some great actors and good performances (I'm trying to think of any bad performance Helen Mirren's actually given), and allows one of our great character actors, Bob Balaban, his moment in the sun (or the reflected light of Jupiter, in this case) as the obsessive Dr. Chandra, HAL-9000's creator who comes along on the expedition to reason with his troubled brainchild (their final scene together still brings a tear to the eye). I haven't seen it in over a decade, but I'm pretty sure there's a flying car in one scene, and that hasn't happened yet.

Still, 2010 was, for me, a good, solid year. There were none of the social or occupational fireworks of 2009, and some of the political promise that had many of us cautiously excited has dissipated. For myself, there's been a lot of creating and a few solid achievements. I was made head gardener (the actual title would mean nothing to most of you) at work, along with my regular duties, I had a batch of film reviews published in Darrell Buxton's excellent collection The Shrieking Sixties, I acquired a fun new hobby with buying a camera and have taken some really good shots, from what people tell me, and I just completed a much longer project that fulfils a long-standing ambition. So it's been a bit quieter than 2009, but none the worse for it.

I'm wrapping it up with a mess of society. Mittenfest in Ypsilanti finally opened early enough for me to make it out there (the buses stop running back at 10), now to Woodruff's, a fun new club in historic Depot Town. I snuck in there the first night, said hello to Brandon and Annie, and marveled at how much my life had changed since the first proto-version of Mittenfest played at the Madison House on Memorial Day, 2005 and kick-started my social life (it's interesting that I started the decade on a high and went out on one, despite a huge slump right before the middle). Mittenfest primarily benefits 826michigan, a species of the nationwide 826 program started by writer Dave Eggers to help promote literacy and creative writing for secondary school-age kids. I think they do great work, despite their de facto tenuous connection with the egregious McSweeney's. Sadly, the acts I saw (only a couple, to be sure) weren't terribly inspiring, with the exception of Hamtramck's superb Pewter Cub, who I firmly plan to investigate further--their CD the door opened; you get in... is pretty sweet, too. Tonight I'll be hitting my friend Margot's party (after a trepidatious period of seeing if we'd be getting any rain, as I'll be taking the bike) and then, if I'm feeling silly enough, hitting the Bang! at the Blind Pig in a ludicrously circuitous route home. I have to work tomorrow, too, so can't stay out too late. And then I just found out there's another party tomorrow at another friend's house. If you'd told me I would have had to worry about this stuff six or seven years ago, I would have told you "yes, please."

I think this decade could be an eventful one, and I hope they aren't the wrong kind. This next year I think will be rather weird. Just a feeling; there are minor shakeups coming at the job due to the construction project that will double the business in physical size and we still have little idea as to what they'll really be. I've made a decision regarding my personal life that I hope to put into action this year, and it could be pretty influential--it's certainly frightening. In any event, it won't be boring. I also need to make a bird feeder.

Wherever you are, have a happy New Year, and I'll see you around! Maybe people, myself included, will realize we don't need flying cars by the time New Year's Eve 2020 rolls around.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 9:28 PM EST
Updated: 31 December 2010 9:30 PM EST
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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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