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History To and Fro

This review is devoted to Michael Robbins,
and the acclaim in which he’s baskin’.
Between pop culture and canon his head is bobbin’
but greater context is what I’m askin’.

“He will make your O’Hara stand on end!
He merges Ashberia with modern America!
Brings back Classic Koch and whips the rest:
On Atlantic, on Harper’s, you’re not so bazaar,
Robbins melts Frost and gives his asshole a scar!”

Excuse me from the land of bourgeois flaps,
of Collins and Larkin and university-press chaps.
I hear the music and meter and confidence, too,
but what makes this schizophrenia good?

“The meaning is song, the holiest bong,
do your homework and read up
on some Rilke, you jerk.
These patties aren’t frozen
for your mass consumption,
you presumptive fat ass.”

Fair enough. But poetry is my bath,
remodeled into your hot tub,
where the spark of a few good puns
flash-fries frogs fearing a flash
from the Spicer Girls tattoo on your dick.

You can’t name-drop the truth,
but Robbins throws a good party
if you know where to look.
I’m done being bitter and keep the glitter
from this one-night stand of a book.
I woke up in Vegas, all of this happened,
two stars from a fool of a Took!

[Decoding Disclaimer: I first read Robbins’s book a few months ago and dismissed it, partly out of frustration, and awarded it one star. I recently revisited the book after reading up on several poets from the ‘New York school’ and gained a greater appreciation of Robbins’s verse. He plays with all kinds of rhyme schemes and merges different cultural worlds with such familiarity that anyone without a guide can easily feel overwhelmed or, worse, insulted, but his work hits best when performed out loud with sharp inflections. I think that anyone who tosses Robbins out for experimenting with the sounds, music, and formats of language itself is betraying poetry. Having said that, I don’t necessarily like many of Robbins’s poems. He can be fun, though, and is certainly worth a look, especially to expand one’s boundaries.]

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Homages & Panderings

There be spoilers ahead, mainly for Ready Player One. And now you know.

Here’s how good Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu is: it made me like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One less.

I read Ready Player One first and loved it. Wade Wiggins slumps through virtual high school while spending all of his spare time researching the history and hobbies of one of the world’s greatest programmers, James Halliday. Halliday built the virtual universe that every person (with money) uses, OASIS, which serves as a sort of cross between Second Life and World of Warcraft. It is a world that is played like a game, but also serves utilities such as public education and television. Halliday is dead, and his will states that he hid an egg (aka easter egg, the sort of inside jokes that programmers tuck away in their software) in OASIS that entitles its finder to his entire fortune and ownership of OASIS. Naturally, ever since that announcement, factions have arisen on the internet among players and corporations to find the egg.

Successfully navigating the OASIS to find the egg depends on absorbing as much 80s and 90s geek culture as possible, including Rush’s 2112, the movie War Games, cereal box prizes, arcade and home console video games, and giant robots from Japanese television, to name just a few of the many references made throughout the story. Wade is a total recluse, so his encyclopedic knowledge of these topics flows forth as evidence of a mind as sharp as it is wasted. There is a note in the book about hikkikomori, or men in Japan who live alone to temper their hobbies. Wade is a Western hikkikomori, living among stacked trailer parks in a world whose environment and economy have tanked, leaving him without any positive reinforcement in his life save for some basic friendship from near-anonymous online personae. Wade is as saved by the OASIS universe as he is a slave to it.

Let’s get this out of the way now: the premise is a match made in heaven for me. Sometimes, Wade will make a casual reference to some piece of gaming history, followed by a fuller explanation in the narration. Cline is clearly having his references both ways – the reader gets to enjoy the hip, quick reference while less informed readers have ready cliffs notes to follow. Ideally, Cline would just stick to his references and let his readers google whatever doesn’t ring familiar, but you know what? I was okay with the combined approach. Cline is the guy who tricked out a DeLorean with Knight Rider and Ghostbusters tech. He unironically loves Black Tiger as  his all-time favorite videogame. I am as pleased reading about the use of pop culture artifacts in a story as reading a dictionary of them.

However, as the story progresses, the stakes seem lower than they should be. Wade loses family, but remains secure in his isolation from society. He’s sent to jail, but by design so he can break back out. Wade’s friends are all given incentives to betray the quest for the egg — in fact, there are moments when Wade’s friends remark that this or that detail is “interesting” to learn about Wade’s life — but everyone is true to the group. The video game challenges Wade must overcome are amusing at first. Hey, I love Joust and the minor notes on play style that enable Wade to narrowly beat an AI opponent. But reading the equivalent of, “the game was really hard but Wade beat it anyway” carries no weight. The same problem plagues the final act (or middle act, depending on your patience): after a certain point, the references feel as stacked together as the trailer homes of Wade’s community. The nostalgia dries up as the novelty of each nerdy reference diminishes and I don’t care that the Evangelion mech, Gundam, Ultraman, Supaidaman, and Mechagodzilla are all in a fight to the death. Give the mega-rich corporate villain a compelling backstory instead. Give one of Wade’s friends a traitorous twist. Lose some familiarity.

My complaints about Ready Player One became more pronounced as soon as I read Infinite Kung Fu, a graphic novel 10 years in the making that incorporates elements of mythological, supernatural, blaxploitation, wushu, and good old unarmed kung fu storytelling without missing a beat between any of them. The story can barely contain its sprawling cast, yet each character is distinct. There are over a dozen martial artists dueling each other, yet the fighting styles act as separate body languages. None of the conflicts are bland like a Superman “punch each other until someone quits” fight. Characters receive injuries and death over their arcs, and change in body and mind from chapter to chapter. Nobody feels tossed into the story for the sake of “ooh, I know that face from that movie.” A brief history of kung fu cinema is provided in the back, but advance knowledge is not required to enjoy Infinite Kung Fu, just a willingness to absorb lovely line work, story threads that weave and separate (both between characters and between tones, from grave to humorous and back again), and more knockabout than a burly brawl. McLeod accomplishes the rare feat of paying homages while telling an original story, something Cline comes awful close to doing, though both are a heap of fun.

How far should inside jokes or references go? Is their usage to be judged by personal taste or only by those who ‘know’? If someone bashed Ready Player One for being too referential, I would point out that the constant references are, for a time, reflective of Wade’s mental state and his state of living. I think the matter becomes complex in the case of literary references, to be covered in a future review of -GASP- poetry.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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We Need More Myers and More Homer

Hey! I am going to discuss the endings to Homer’s Odyssey and Walter Dean Myers’s Lockdown in this post. You have been warned!

I cannot hate this article enough.

Alexander Nazaryan sounded full of himself back in January when I first read his take on Walter Dean Myers, and now that I’ve read Lockdown I can make counter-arguments based on my own reading. Here, have some pompous excerpts first:

 I am an unashamed, unapologetic believer that the purpose of literature is to elevate. Not to entertain, to problematize or to instruct, but to take what Hamlet called our “unweeded garden” and revel in its thorns. Not to make the world pretty, but to make it true, and by making it true, make it beautiful. All real art is high art.

Myers’ books on the other hand, are painfully mundane, with simple moral lessons built into predictable situations: the projects, prison, redemption. Dostoyevsky (whom I despise – but that’s another post) of a darker shade. His stated goal is to make urban children think, but his books rarely have to make them think very deeply at all – they are about those kids’ own sad lives, and the sad lessons too many of them have already learned. To me, from the front of the classroom, those kids were, by and large, smarter than the books he wrote for them – if not, just yet, more sophisticated.

Nazaryan does not read Myers very deeply at all if his analysis is really that simple. Having read Lockdown and The Odyssey, I believe they are functionally the same story. Both involve a man trying to return home during the aftermath of a major conflict. Both include friends and enemies along the journey who enact catastrophic setbacks and mistakes of good intention.

If there is any comparison in which Lockdown falls short, it would be the final act. In The Odyssey, when Odysseus comes home in disguise and sees how the men of the community have ruined all of his property and harrassed his wife and son (and left his dog to die a horrible death!), he throws off his disguise and murders everyone who refuses to leave his family alone. It is a cathartic bloodbath rooted in justice — Odysseus takes pains to ensure that everyone he smites totally deserves it. He is able to reclaim his home and the company of a family that never forgot him.

Lockdown ends with a “one year later” epilogue that shortchanges all of the character development and foreshadowing the reader has been following for the entire book. Reese was supposed to figure out a plan for normal life while he was in juvenile jail, and the fights he started to protect mousier inmates would set him back in the eyes of the supervisors. The guards can tell Reese is smart enough to prevent the cycle of imprisonment, and get angry at him whenever he stoops to the inmates’ levels. He worked in a hospital and gained some empathy for and from a racist old white man on his deathbed (this sounds like the most contrived element of the plot, but it actually works quite well). All of these developments are thrown aside for a phrase like, “Now that I’m out, I’ll just have to keep on trying until I get to the good stuff.” The good stuff?! Reese does not have to reconcile any of his difficulties with his family members or the drug dealers who led Reese into theft and tried to drum up false charges to intensify his sentence years after the fact. But at least the journey was worth the read, right? Right.

Lockdown was on its way to saying something harsh and true about what it takes to improve oneself in a country that only believes in certain kinds of second chances. For reference, consult Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Several characters lecture Reese about how getting out of jail won’t magically solve any of his problems, then the epilogue more or less magically solves them. Among the criticisms of Lockdown out there is the complaint that the reader is not given enough of Reese’s thought processes, which could not be less true for me. Reese provides a lot of descriptions of the people around him and how he reacts or ignores them, and that speaks worlds to me. When he shuts up around a guard but makes small talk with a nurse, that is Reese’s thought process on display. When he describes the different things that you could do in a cell versus a detention block, that is a diagram of every internal monologue and rumor mill in the jail. And when he describes the windup before each fight, I see a young man who can be egged into a conflict but is by no means a violent guy.

Nazaryan uses his experiences as a schoolteacher to speak with authority about teens’ reading habits. I have a place of authority, too – booktalking at my local schools. I held up Lockdown and The Odyssey. More teens had read Lockdown, but guess what? Teens enjoyed both books. There’s enough room in the school year and the library to consider more than one storytelling style and era.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Bright, Gloomy British Children (The Dark Is Rising)

The Dark is Rising series was the Harry Potter of the 70s, meaning it was a fantasy tale written for British children and modeled its battle between good and evil on the strength of one’s character.

My children’s librarian coworker recommended the series to me months ago, but it wasn’t until the YALSA Best of the Best Reading Challenge began that I convinced myself to take the ride. She told me to start with book two, as book one was too dry for an introduction, but that I should go through book one then the rest of the series if I liked book two.

If there is anything dry in The Dark Is Rising (book two of a series named after it), it is the quaint farmhouse existence of the protagonist’s family. They sing carols together during Christmas, attend church on Sundays, and share the descriptor “withering” for their nastiest expressions. If someone yells out, the family races over to help. But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with showing how a supportive, loving, religious family functions in a story. Leagues of religious parents scorned Harry Potter for supposedly substituting “magic” in the place of Jesus. Here, a pastor tries to reconcile the existence of magic and attributes it to God. Will Stanton, the 11-year-old Chosen One of this series, argues that magic and God both come from something infinite and eternal that is beyond the surface-level perception of mortals. The pastor is delighted to hear such talk and asks for future conversations. The (wholesome, Christian) heroes are internally glad they don’t have to tiptoe through a discussion of magic without offending anyone. Too bad that issue still speaks to truth.

Will Stanton is in over his head compared to Harry Potter: he learns magical abilities through a sort of instant transmission from an extremely rare and extremely powerful book, but the knowledge it grants him brings the sorrow of history’s long view. He has barely started his adventure and already knows how the last millennium’s worth of heroes bit the dust. He has some super-powered older friends, but they have their own tasks abroad while Will simply fights to keep his family from freezing to death in winter.

That winter freeze is no accident, and that indirect influence is what makes the conflict between good and evil so compelling in The Dark Is Rising. The stakes are handled differently than “my lightning bolt is stronger than your fireball.” It’s more a matter of “my shield protects against your turning my friends into traitors.” The forces of good are threatened on all sides, but the means of attack could be as innocuous as hearing a loud noise while standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Self-awareness and principles are as strong as magical McGuffins, even though Will needs the six “Signs” if he is to defeat (As in drive away? Kill? I shall see!) the Dark.

My favorite part of The Dark Is Rising was when Merriman, the Gandalf/Dumbledore of the book, tells Will about the difference between good and evil: Good asks for personal sacrifice toward a delayed reward, but that reward will be unspoiled. Evil offers nothing but rewards up front then takes more back from its patron than the spoils were ever worth.

I think there’s a moral about credit cards in there somewhere.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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What’s Black and White and Dry All Over?

One of the hottest fiction releases of 2011 was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. I read some articles about it last year in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly about how it received a huge marketing push, Morgenstern was well compensated for a first book, and the movie rights were already sold to create a huge franchise. “This could be the next Harry Potter!” I was told.

But it’s not.

The Night Circus‘s great appeal is in its visual storytelling. Even the book covers of its various editions are impeccable and represent Morgenstern’s talent for striking descriptions. Just about every chapter includes a clear image of either someone’s clothing, a dessert, or the entertainments of the night circus. Some combination of fabric, chocolate, and magical flame will take hold of your imagination, and I am sure these images will make for a grand movie spectacle, as well.

The magic is also easy to picture: Morgenstern’s magicians use illusions without bringing the reader too far behind the curtain to know how everything works. If a character heals cuts on her fingers with telepathy, then that is all the reader needs to know and Morgenstern is happy to omit any Latin spellcasting or bejeweled wands. I enjoyed letting the magicians wield automatic, mysterious magic. How they use the magic says more about their character than the existence of magic, anyway.

About halfway through the book, however, I started to lose touch with the cast. Maybe Morgenstern’s narrative jumped forward and backward through time too often. Maybe I’d had enough of the Starbucksian descriptions in which everything involves vanilla, chocolate, ice, cinnamon, clover, or some other fancy coffee ingredient. One thing is for certain: the dry characters had lost their appeal. Even by the time a romance entered the story, neither love interest felt compelling enough to care about. There’s a scene described as, “there was a boisterous mood in the room.” Thanks for the info! And thanks for every character trying to out-dandy everyone else. I loved reading about the Victorian-Romantic manners and outfits (this book could spark its own convention of cosplayers and merchandisers), but after a certain point the book’s world feels like a dinner theater where the murderer is just a member of the audience and nothing is really at stake. Insert joke about corsets.

A large chunk of the book serves as an epilogue for other characters who were not fleshed out nearly enough for the treatment they were given, unless a sequel revisits everyone. Imagine if Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone ended with 70 pages explaining how Neville Longbottom became class president and made up his own business cards.

But then, that’s the difference between Morgenstern and Rowling. One put us in the head of a boy in a magical world. The other just led a tour of a castle.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“From Shoes To Booze”

  • A strong-willed woman starts a small-town movement that soon gains national attention.
  • Religious leaders encourage Americans to “do the right thing” even when the “wrong thing” is a multibillion-dollar business that demands nothing from its users.
  • Criminal activity swells in large cities that could be prevented if only the law didn’t make the crime so profitable.
  • The upper class wields enough money and privacy to do whatever it wants, no matter the rules imposed on the public at large.
  • Government officials passionately decrying “immoral behavior” turn out to engage in that exact behavior.
  • Despite sensational headlines about history in the making, large swaths of middle and suburban America are largely unaffected and go about their day to day lives.

Do any of those statements sound familiar? Such are the events I’ve picked up from Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition. Karen Blumenthal does an excellent job of singling out the individuals who stuck out during the formation, enforcement, and breakdown of Prohibition. I’m pretty sure historical events don’t count as spoilers, but I was amused and surprised by some of the endorsements and resistances to Prohibition. The only parts that dragged for me involved official legislation and the game of votes in Congress; otherwise, this is the go-to book for all things hypocritical, self-righteous, honestly concerned, humorously daring, ordinarily tragic, and criminally tragic in America.

This entry’s title comes from Morris Shepard, who observed that local stores went from selling all manner of things to reverting back to alcohol. He believed with all his heart that the lack of alcohol in Americans’ lives would lead them to more productive and interesting causes. Blumenthal seems to ask which is worse: millions of alcohol dependents, or slightly fewer alcohol dependents funding a series of Al Capones?

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Red Letter Day

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The last time I visited Chicago, I visited One Stop Comics and noticed several issues of a comic called Scarlet. Each cover seemed to be reaching hard to look as “alternative” as possible, with its redheaded protagonist always brandishing guns and making serious faces. The covers reminded me of Synthia “Sin” Schmidt from Captain America:

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Modern comics love a ginger with a gun, I guess. Sin was a hyperactive snot of a villain for Marvel, rushing around with pistols and laughing at death and destruction until she turned out to have no martial arts abilities and every superhero she met took her out. Sensing that I did not want to read a comic with that type of character in the lead role, I moved on. Now, years later, the first five issues are collected in a hardcover that has been selected by YALSA as one of their Great Graphic Novels For Teens. Why don’t I quit flashbacking and start reviewing, then?

The gritty world of Scarlet is drenched in cynical shadows and blurred faces on every page. Well, there are some snatches of joy to be found, but like any vigilante origin story, joy becomes a necessary bygone. Scarlet Rue enjoys life with her boyfriend in Portland, Oregon until a dirty cop kills him for drugs he didn’t have and shoots her too. Scarlet talks a lot about having enough of “the bullshit,” but I am glad that her unimaginative ranting applies to an observed problem. Without spoiling too much of her anti-corruption methods, let me just say Scarlet gets the police’s and public’s attention, escalating everyone’s stake in how “the bullshit” turns out. I am also glad that Portland is shown to have some serious problems in addition to its whimsical hipsters who inject magical creativity into everyday life.

All in all, I think this is a good comic for “older teens,” meaning anyone who can handle salty language and some gun violence. Scarlet is a good counterculture voice and stands up for what she believes in, including when she questions the right thing to do and how she will handle the increased attention and danger she invites.

The comic covers scream, “whoa, a badass chick with a gun,” but writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev go to pains to make sure that we see she is a human being with a gun, complete with a past, a family, and a brain. The characters who speak directly to the reader leave the impression that what happens on the page makes us witnesses more than audiences.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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