31 October 2007

Post 33

Hello, Halloween; it's been so long--like, a whole year, it seems....

Today I watched The Nightmare before Christmas. That, to me, is a fascinating work of fiction; everything about it--the premise, the story, the characters, the music--everything is so unique, and I love it.
I'm a big fan of Danny Elfman anyway, though; especially since I've seen some of his non-Burton flicks--Meet the Robinsons and the live-action Charlotte's Web--he's very eclectic, very talented, and, in Nightmare, he's at the peak of his form. Nevertheless, the music is only a sidenote in this review, albeit a very important sidenote.

There is a rumor being circulated by some of my friends that I hate Santa Claus. Because this rumor is only a slight exaggeration, I've done everything I can to bolster its credulity, but in reality, I don't really hate Santa Claus; what I hate is the way Christmas has become a celebration of Capitalism (Capitalistmas, I call it) because I feel that that is very wrong.

My birthday is only a couple days before Christmas. On the first day of Christmas break during my senior year of high school, a bunch of my friends kidnapped me and took me to see the third LOTR movie. After that ridiculously long movie ended for the umpteenth time and the credits finally started rolling so I could stand up and regain circulation in my legs, we all went out to Taco Bell.

At the time, one of my closest friends--the person whom I felt understood me best--was a buddy of mine named Dominic, and he was a part of this group. This was back in my days of prolific ranting, and Dom and I did a lot of ranting together, each fueling the other's frenzy. On this particular night, sitting in Taco Bell, we went off like a pair of roman candles, attacking the modern degradation of yuletide holiness. I went home that night and started a short story that ultimately wound up being the most cynical piece I've ever written. I would include it here, but, alas, I have no access to it because the flash drive I put all my works on so I didn't have to move here with a fat stack of CD-Rs died (don't worry; those CD-Rs are safely stashed at my parents' house).
Anyway, from then on I adopted the persona of one with a passionate hatred for the Jolly Old Elf, writing angry songs and stories, slandering every facet of his character I could think of.
I kept this attitude up as a missionary, though usually only in the company of other missionaries, denying any allegations while in polite company. One summer day, after a particularly hot and frustrating round of tracting, I came home for lunch and penned the following:

Christmas Sentiments for the Not-so-Jolly
by Elder Jepson

Christmas comes and Johnny's sure
To remember what it's for
So writes his prayer out on a list,
And just to make sure he's no missed,
He leaves and offering to his god
(A greedy being, so it's not odd):
A plate of cookies and some milk
Then goes to bed wrapped in a quilt.
He stays awake (he cannot sleep)
And so a silent vigil keeps
To see if he can hear a sound
When his god comes roaming 'round.
Then Santa Claus, his Christmas god,
On Johnny's snowy rooftop trods,
Goes down the chimney, to the table,
Eats all the cookies he is able,
Then downs the milk and grabs the list
And holds it tightly in his fist.
Now, if you break the stringent laws
Set up by fat ole Santa Claus
He'll leave you coal instead of goods,
So you must do just what you should
Lest you end up like Johnny, who
Got just old coal and nothing new.

I don't believe in Santa Claus
And, if you must know, it's because
He's a false god, and that's bad;
Don't worship him, it makes me sad.
That's not the point of Christmastime
(Since you forgot, let me remind);
Christmas should be about Christ
Now go your way and get it right!
If you love Santa and his bells
More than Jesus, you'll go to hell!

One of the missionaries I was living with at the time I wrote the above had been the lead singer in a death metal band at one point. After I finished my first recitation of it, he looked at me with wide-eyed wonderment and told me that I was the first person to ever scare him, then he looked away and muttered, "You think you know a guy...."
A while later, that missionary revealed to me that he had a copy of the soundtrack to The Nightmare before Christmas hidden away. He revealed that to me by one p-day blasting "Kidnap the Santy Claus" out of his portable CD player.
I can't really explain what happened to me then because I don't really understand it myself, but I was in a very--uh--odd mood after that--and that's all I really care to say about the incident.

FLASHFORWARD approx. 1 year:
Last Sunday at Church, a friend of mine spoke in in sacrament meeting and at one point used The Nightmare before Christmas as a beautiful analogy that really struck me--not just because it was a solid analogy, but because I was shocked that a movie with a soundtrack that could put a missionary in a reckless mood could be used for such edification.
I've been avoiding that movie for years, even since before my conversation with Dom, worried what it would do to me. I saw it once when it was fairly new, but I don't think I've ever seen it all the way through since then, and I've seen parts of it on only two or three occasions. After that talk, though, I decided perhaps I ought to give it another chance.

Today I had no substitute teaching to do, and so last night I found myself dreading a long and lonely Halloween. The above mentioned friend texted me and asked me whether I had any plans, so I texted her and told her I didn't, that I wasn't even working, that I had no idea what I was gonna do; she said she would be home most of the day (she lives in my apartment complex), that she would be studying most of the day but might be able to pencil me in so we could watch a movie or something.
A copy of The Nightmare before Christmas lives here in my apartment; it belongs to one of my roommates. As I was making myself some french toast for breakfast this morning, that realization dawned on me, so this afternoon my friend and I watched it.
[I don't know how I feel about bloggers making pseudonyms for friends and family members, but the fact that they all seem to makes me wonder whether it's actually taboo to name names; that's why I'm avoiding that. Just thought you should know. Refering to someone over and over as "my friend" seems awkward--wait a minute--I named Dom's name--hmmmmmm...].
Anyway, so Sarah and I watched Nightmare today, and I really enjoyed it. Better yet, it left me feeling really--I dunno--not creepy, which was a relief since there was a girl in the room. I must admit, I did start twitching a bit during "Kidnap the Santy Claus," but I think that was mostly an act of will, to be honest.

One thing that impacted me most in the movie was the whole trying-to-be-someone-else motif thing; ya know, Jack trying to make himself and those around him become something they weren't. I think we all--well, I won't make that generalization, I guess--I know I have that tendency; I see someone who's good at something and start wishing that I was as good at that something as that someone is, even though I have my own talents and ability's. Jack was the Pumpkin King--no small position--and very good at what he did; why should he want to be Santa Claus?
On the flip side of that, though, there's the whole concept of just how hard it is to change, to become better--especially when those around you just don't understand. Furthermore, I found it very insightful that Jack's fatal mistake was when he started catering the truth of Christmas Town to the mindset of Halloween Town citizens. That's something I do occasionally: bend the truth until it conforms to the status quo in some small way. It's a terrible habit, really; luckily (or perhaps unfortunately), I have yet to be "blown to smithereens" because of it.
The most poignant moment for me, though, was when Jack was sitting in his room, pouring over his books and experiments, scientifically trying to figure out the concept of joy, singing mournfully his frustration that, despite memorizing stories and carols, he could not make sense of any of it. I, too, have done that--do that--regularly. I often--

Um. Slight tangent, here:

I'm a man of very few secrets. I'm very open about who I am and where I'm coming from--or try to be, at least. I've never been able to understand how people can be so touchy about things that they don't want to talk about them. I have a few painful memories that I don't enjoy dwelling on, but I really have no problem talking about them one-on-one in a serious moment. I think some of them are very pertinent to who and what I am, so if someone is making an effort to get to know me, and if they're the sort of person I want to get to know, I have no problem sharing this or that tidbit that many other people would keep carefully guarded. It's just all about timing and relevance.
But, because I have no control over who reads this and no way of knowing what sort of mood readers are in, there are certain things that I don't feel comfortable blogging about, so I hereby terminate the foregoing train of thought.

--end of tangent--

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that The Nightmare before Christmas is a top-notch sort of movie that I would highly recommend to most anyone.
And, because The Corpse Bride resides in this apartment as well, I hope to love it soon, too.

28 October 2007

Post 32

Okay. Alright. I'm always happy to endure some correction.

I just watched National Treasure. I'd never seen it before, which is shocking to most people; nobody hates that movie--near as I can tell, at least. Knowing almost nothing about it except its archaeological-adventure genre, I kept a keen eye out for any deus ex machina, inconsistency in plot and/or characters, and over-the-top action, and I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The characters were well defined and consistent; the logical flow was smooth and surprisingly layered insomuch that I think it's the sort of movie that I would pick up on details with a second and third watching (which I hope to have--someday). A few little things struck me as a mite unbelievable, but I suppose it wouldn't fit the Indiana Jones action-adventure bill if it lacked things like inextinguishable torches, scary men who have terrible aim with their powerful handguns even when near point-blank range, a heroine who eventually falls for a man she initially distrusted, and stairwells that crumble when walked upon but stalwartly break long falls (I have this theory that ancient architects found a way to build structures out of cornstarch that was painted to look like wood). All of these, I suppose, are forgiven by the willing suspension of disbelief (see Post 31 for more on that--I think--I'm too tired to actually look it up).

At the start, I was skeptical, and things like Ben and Riley finding that smuggling port thing in the hull of an exploding, ancient ship and then somehow finding a quick route to go from being stranded in the midst of some tundra to talking with the FBI in Washington DC--well--I kinda found it hard to swallow. And Riley struck me as a little inconsistent at first--not appearing book smart and then suddenly giving a tour of the library of congress. But as the movie went on, I actually started to appreciate such things--Riley became my favorite character, and the trip from the tundra--well, that's my next point, I suppose:

I also really enjoyed the pace the movie moved at. The fact that the scene wherein they stole the Declaration of Independence was fairly short was very impressive to me; the writers seemed to understand well that the scene, though very important, was mostly incidental, and to make it longer would have probably been very exciting, but any movie that is much longer than two hours can't be too enjoyable [don't look at me in that tone of voice, oh ye hardcore LOTR fans who own all three extended versions; I spit at the very idea of people like you]. Therefore, I can also appreciate that there was no mention of how Ben and Riley escaped the tundra because, really, I don't care. Maybe it was deus ex machina; I'd take that over a three-hour movie any day.

As the conclusion was fast approaching, I was bracing myself for a grave disappointment. Obviously, Ben was not going to be sent to prison, and I felt that that was wrong. I'm sick and tired of protagonists who do bad things and suffer no just consequences; I've seen way too much of it. And I know that a movie can end satisfactorily when the main character gets thrown in jail because I've seen Ocean's Eleven. I was thinking in my head, "Man, Ben's just gonna buy his way out of prison with all this money, which a few billion dollars would certainly do in real life, but I don't really imagine that in real life Ben would have any grounds to claim ownership of this booty. Deusexmachina-ma-rama. So sad to kill what has been a most enjoyable movie this way." But making the head FBI dude a Mason, and having him say, "Ben, someone's gotta go to prison," and then doing what they did--I was okay with all of that. The ending left me--stunned, frankly; I was watching it with a group of friends who love this movie, and the whole time I was trying to come up with this "Well, I can see why literary peons like you would like this movie, but--" kind of speech, but it ended and left me nothing very solid to complain about.

And--I'm okay with that; I got a few snide comments in from time to time, but, in the end, I had to say, "Hm. I guess it is a pretty good movie...."

26 October 2007

Post 31

Man. See, that's what I'm looking for--but in books.
To quote the Raven: "vainly I [have] sought to borrow/From my books surcease of sorrow."

Music. Music is a truly passionate medium. Unfortunately, my opinion of modern music isn't much higher than my opinion of modern literature--mostly, modern art as a whole is one big disappointment to me; humanity has somehow lost its ability to distill emotion--for the most part at least.

But we haven't lost everything; as long as me have melancholy, there will always be some semblance of art, I suppose. (For my part, I spend a lot of time living and breathing melancholy; I just can't focus it into anything but lengthy whines to post on my blog.) I can't think of any more recent examples, but Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train" and Bon Jovi's "Someday I'll Be Saturday Night" are two songs that are too poignant for me to listen to very regularly--if at all. They always get to me.

I'm not one to cry, but I'm a prolific sigher, and those two songs make me sigh from an unplumbed depth.

19 October 2007

Post 30

More quazi-literary rantings now:

Today I read Fahrenheit 451 and got paid for it (I subbed a few hours of study hall and found it in the classroom). A week or so ago, I read Jonathon Livingston Seagull. I have read a couple more of Plato's Socrates dialogs and started chipping away at Walden and some Emerson, but I have encountered a dramatic disconnect, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Previously, I have mentioned my distaste for Harry Potter without explaining how it came to be--a story that actually predates my account in Post 9 and seems relevant now.

As I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry and I shared many a magical moment; we connected. I know what it's like to have friends in crappy relationships; I know it's like to have a teacher take oppressively special notice of me; I know what it's like to be worried about the health of a mentor; I know what a crush is like; I even connected with the Felix Felicis scene because I know what it's like a day when everything goes just right--I've never connected so deeply with any other work of fiction as I did with this book. The magic and witchcraft and lurking evil were all circumstantial; the quintessential story was the ups and downs of mid-adolescence, and I can feel that; it's real to me.
But "the higher my high/the lower my low"; this poignant connection is what set the entire Harry Potter series up for a fall from grace. Whereas I can connect with worrying over a gimpy father figure, I have no comprehension what it would be like to force-feed said figure a debilitating hallucinogen just to watch him rush into death--all for naught; whereas I have had unfulfilled crushes, I have never told a girl I was "in love with" to go on without me because she'd be better off with someone else. And, whereas many a Harry Potter fan read these things and thought, "How terrible!"--meaning "I can't imagine what it's like to go through anything so traumatic; poor Harry!"--I read these scenes and thought, "How terrible!"--meaning "Well, there goes my willing suspension of disbelief, blown away like so many ashes of a cremated pet on a windy day. And, seriously Harry, get over yourself; she's almost as stupid as you are and will willingly die with you." I don't know; there seemed to be nothing more to come from the story. Sure, book seven ironed out a lot of wrinkles--brilliantly, I begrudgingly admit--but the magic of the story was gone; I could not find myself able to care. Harry had gotten incredibly unlikable in the fifth book, but by the conclusion of book six, I hated the kid--irrationally, perhaps, but also undeniably. I suppose once a work of fiction looses its relevancy to real life and the human condition, it becomes little more than words--less, in fact: mere ink on paper (or flashes of light with choreographed sounds, as was the case with the fifth Harry Potter movie [see Post 9]).

So that's the lens I see fiction through. I believe I have before expressed that I feel I'm at a crucial time in my life wherein I am very vulnerable and impressionable and required to make decisions that carry lifelong and even eternal consequences, so I'm looking for literature that will change me in righteous ways at this ever so crucial moment, but in order for fiction to change me, it must impact me; to impact me, it must connect with me; to connect with me, it must have some foundation in what is real to me. That, then, is where the disconnect lies: stories that have no bearing on what is real.

Perhaps the scripture that has had the greatest impact on me is Doctrine and Covenants section 50, verse 23. I found it one morning in Eagle, Id, and it has been a standard flapping in my face ever since. It's so short, so direct, so unmisrepresentable. Here it is:

And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.

Definitions of "edify" include:

To build up. In the Christian context it means to strengthen someone, or be strengthened, in relationship to God, the Christian walk, and holiness

Improve spiritually or morally by instruction or example.

enlighten: make understand

So, if whatever bit of fiction you're reading or watching or listening to or otherwise experiencing does not build you up and/or strengthen you and/or improve you and/or enlighten you, not only is it a waste of your time, it is darkness.

I must admit this troubles me--a lot. For God to call something darkness--his metaphysical opposite--it's pretty intense.

This is a tangent I did not intend to take, but it gets to the heart of my difficulties in regards to fiction--or any work, regardless of factuality. But how can one know whether a work will edify without trying it? Such is my conundrum.

Anyway, that nonlinear bit of thought is where I stand when it comes to books and movies and music and all suchlike. I think that fiction is generally too far separated from reality--designed to be a fleeting escape rather than any sort of--actual--helpful--sumpineruther. This is very sad.

I have felt the first inkling of regret for reading so much so fast; I think I blew off an absolute jewel in reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull so quickly and not pondering the subtle details of the allegory, but because I've read it so recently and I still have so much to read, it will likely be a very long time before I reread it--even if it is a very short volume. I think it's just the sort of thing I've been looking for, and I missed it. A hypocritically hearty recommendation on this one.

Fahrenheit 451 is--okay. I like it, but having read 1984, it's a comparatively weak take on the government-oppression dystopia thing. Of course, the concepts are quite different, and their denouements are opposed to each other--at least 451 leaves the faint impression of hope. But Bradbury's writing is kinda sloppy and occasionally over the top. I did manage to connect with Montag a few times, though, and once or twice felt a tad emotional. But it wasn't in the struggle that made up the main story; it was in the isolation, the fact that he and his wife were strangers, the fact that he had no idea what it's like to just sit and chat. It was when he could hear the family next door talking and laughing and contemplated knocking on the door and asking to join. I forget his exact thought, but it was something akin to "Can I come in? I won't say anything, I just want to know what it is you talk about." I know what it's like to be the outsider, and I have been lonely when I'm not alone, but this was so personal to me because I am a man of very few phobias, but perhaps my greatest fear is that I will one day find myself a stranger to those I love.
I don't know how enthusiastically I'd recommend this book; as I said, I felt the writing was sloppy. Furthermore, the ending seemed to drag on and on--I would have ended it with Montag hopping in the river, changing his clothes, and floating away, leaving the possibility of traveling literary hasbeens to the imagination of the reader.
One little sidenote: Ray Bradbury wrote a play version of Fahrenheit 451, but he didn't just shorten the story, change its formatting, and divide it into two acts; he actually rewrote the entire story and, in my opinion, did a much better job of it. I think the contrast between the two is the most impressive thing, though, so if you ever have the opportunity to see the play, read the book first to ensure that the original isn't any more disappointing than it has to be and also to ensure you can appreciate the differences.

Well, I grow weary of this drivel, so I'll end it here.

13 October 2007

Post 29

Perhaps I have an overly expressive face....

I've never really thought about how much I use my eyebrows, but I have noticed a few times lately that sometimes while reading or going on a walk alone with my thoughts or having a really good conversation with someone, my forehead muscle(s) are actually sore from the effort. A couple days ago, as I was getting out of the shower, I examined my forehead in the mirror and notice--yup--three little wrinkles upon my youthful brow, fine but definite, premature but probably not unreasonable.
21 years old! Wrinkles!
But I am unrepentant; most of the time, I am totally and blissfully unaware of what's going on with my face. I've been trying to pay attention lately, but it's hard to observe such a system without affecting it, so I can never tell if I'm exaggerating or being merely overly self aware.

Anyway. I guess what I'm getting at is this: that piece your mother always said about not making silly faces because your face might freeze that way may well be true to some extent, so strike a dashing pose and be sure to eat all your vegetables!

09 October 2007

Post 28

A brief attempt at poetry--to break up the monotony of my longwindedness.
Here're a couple of sonnets I wrote:

As I walked through a field of gray one day,
I saw a red, red rose I thought I'd keep;
I plucked it up, continued on my way,
And kept it in my house for all to see.
I'd never really had a rose before
And didn't know how I should care for one,
And so it only faded more and more
Until its simple beauty was all gone.
The petals fell and left me just a stick
(An ugly twig repulsive to my sight),
And, when its little thorns gave me a prick,
I threw it out the door with all my might.
So let me get down to the bottom line:
The pretty little rose was never mine.

I cannot hold your beauty in my hand,
And so to hold your hand must then suffice,
But I would be a slave to any man
If I could hold the light that's in your eyes.
But these are things evasive, not my own
To hold or tote around while on the go;
They must belong to you, and you alone
Must choose on whom thou wilt thy love bestow.
And though you may well choose another man
To whom you'll give you love through stronger ties,
I am for now content to hold your hand
And look a bit into your lov'ly eyes.
So let me get down to the bottom line:
Your love and grace are yours, not really mine.

Post 27

Quazi-literary Rantings (AKA "book reviews that include reviews of short stories") will now continue:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This is another piece of quality literature; though I don't think it's as watertight as 1984, I do think that it flow better than Of Mice and Men; though I wasn't as enthralled with it as I was with Ishmael, of all the books I have thus far reviewed for you, this is the one I would most broadly recommend.
If you have not read To Kill a Mockingbird, I suggest that you not read this review until you've read the book because, whereas I was able to keep the secret of how 1984 and Of Mice and Men each end, I will have to spoil some surprises for you in this review.
I think the thing that impresses me most about To Kill a Mockingbird is the fact that Tom Robinson, though obviously innocent, was convicted; that, to me, is evidence of a gutsy author. So often I am disappointed by authors--especially those who write movies--who succumb to how happy-ending driven society and tack horribly contrived happily-ever-afters onto otherwise quality stories. To Kill a Mockingbird is not that sort of book.
I suppose, in a way, that 1984, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird have themes that are, at least in a broad sense, related. Of the three, I think To Kill a Mockingbird is the sweetest--or bittersweetest, perhaps. On the other hand, it is also probably the slowest moving, and its focus is not as honed as the other two; it's a very multifaceted story and, though all the subplots come together in the end, I have to wonder whether Ms. Lee couldn't have streamlined the story a bit.
[It's almost immoral that I demand such efficiency in art!]
I do like this book, though; I think it is certainly deserving of its fame because of its message. If I'm ever the one dictating curriculum, To Kill a Mockingbird is most definitely a keeper.

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

Here's where I start to reveal just how fickle I am....
With all of my demands for fiction to be meaningful, I feel almost hypocritical admitting that I'm not much into symbolism; I just have such a hard time picking up on it. This short story being laden with symbols and foreshadowing, I didn't really enjoy it.
I'm not really sure, then, what defines to me "good literature" because I much prefer Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" to this one, but this one certainly has more of a message. I guess the fact of the matter is that I'm not looking for fiction to necessarily have any sort of moralistic undertone so much as I'm just looking for it to have an emotional impact.
Which, thinking about it, makes me, perhaps, a very shallow individual.... Sad day!
Anyway, this, too, is quality work that I have a hard time appreciating. Poe obviously kept his own advice in mind as he wrote this, but that doesn't mean its fun to read.
Going back to what I said at the beginning of the last set of book reviews: just as I was unoffended by Maurice Walsh's omniscient POV in "The Quiet Man," I was also accepting of Poe's disregard of the classic rule of "show don't tell" in this story.
Good ole show-don't-tell, man; I tell ya! If there is any semblance of a rule when it comes to writing fiction, SDT is it. I cannot tell you how frustrated I was when Oscar Wilde--another favorite of mine--broke this rule in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I mean, Lord Henry Wotton is the classic Wilde character, and we the reader are immediately amused by him, and then we get this at the dinner party scene in chapter 3:

A laugh ran round the table. He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox.

The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat's black, dripping, sloping sides.

It was an extraordinary improvisation.... He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible.

He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing.

Okay, Oscar, that's--uh--that's--I don't know what the heck that is, but, poetic as you may have thought it was when you wrote it, I would much have preferred for you to actually give me the conversation.
I think this goes back to what I said in my review of Ishmael: when an author desires to give us something he himself has not, serious problems ensue.
But in "The Fall of the House of Usher," when Poe tells rather than shows us things, it is not because he lacks the knowledge of what his characters are actually doing, but rather because that's how he felt was the best way to tell the story.
For example:
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead -- for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
Now, I suppose Poe breaks the supposed "rule" of SDT in this paragraph by telling us what Usher said rather than showing us the conversation, but the fact of the matter is that Usher's words are not the main focus here, though they are important to the overall symbolism, I suppose, so I feel Poe is justified in glancing over them. Symbolism aside, "The Fall of the House of Usher" moves at a very deliberate pace, and I think that, had Poe inserted actual dialog here, he would have disturbed a very delicate rhythm.
Overall, a very high quality tale but not my favorite. Take it or leave it.

Now we enter the Hawthorne segment of these reviews. HUH-boy. I think I'll group them together because, if I don't, I'll just be jumping back and forth and end up confusing us all, so:

"Dr. Heidegger's Experiment"&"The Birthmark"&"Young Goodman Brown"&"The Minister's Black Veil" by Nathanael Hawthorne

I recently acquired a collection of Hawthornian short stories that I'm chipping away at, though I'm thinking I'm going to have to take a break soon because--well--because he's Nathanael Hawthorne.
I remember reading The Scarlet Letter back in high school English. That is the only Hawthorne we ever read, I think. When our teacher told us about Nathanael Hawthorne, she mentioned that he had an obsession with guilt. The reason I remember that is that yesterday I was subbing and was supposed to assign the class "The Minister's Black Veil" as in-class reading, and the notes said something like, "Pay attention to Hawthorne's obsession with guilt," and I thought, "I think that's what my teacher said to me!"
Now I see it; the man definitely had a thing for guilt. In the above listed stories, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" is the only one that doesn't have some semblance of guilt in it, but the four people that participated in the experiment should have at least felt ashamed for themselves, so perhaps a stark lack of guilt is the important part.
I think the biggest fault I can find in Mr. Hawthorne as an author (besides lack of diversity, which isn't too bad because everybody's got their groove, I suppose--either a grove or a rut, but that's mostly determined by audience opinion) is that he lived 200 years ago. That's really the only mark I have against him, and that's hardly his fault. It's just that literature as a whole--even great literature--does not age very well. True, some literature becomes timeless, but just because it's immortal doesn't mean it doesn't get old and rheumatic. Hawthorne is hard to read and--what with his obsession--hard to enjoy.
Though I read him with nary a happy thought, I do smile a bit when I think about how many different angles he found to approach negative emotion from: in "The Minister's Black Veil," an entire town becomes suspicious of their minister; in "Young Goodman Brown," a man becomes suspicious of his entire town; in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," the result of the experiment was hoped to be permanent but turned out to be fleeting; in "The Birthmark," the side effect of an experiment was hoped to be fleeting but turned out to be permanent. Over and over, Mr. Hawthorne manages to pull pain of disappointment and guilt out the strangest places; if he pulls it out of his left pocket in one instance and causes us to believe that happiness is found in his right pocket, then, in the next story, he'll pull misery out of his right pocket and make us wonder if happiness is any where to be found--like in his back or breast pockets--or maybe the cuff of his pants--or somewhere in his hat....
Well that analogy just fell flat! My apologies; moving on.

Euthyphro by Plato

Did I say Hawthorne was hard reading? I recant: Plato is hard reading. Of course, so much depends on translation, and I don't think I have a very good one. Of course, "good translation" is hard to define; the fact that some of the original Greek is occasionally included parenthetically may indicate that my translation is great for those who have actually studied the language, but, as I have not, I would prefer more of a layman's version.
Nevertheless, "Euthyphro" is worth the intense effort of concentration required to stay focused, and I intend, therefore, to read the rest of Plato's Socrates dialogs (they're all four in one volume). Socrates was brilliant, and he puts on such an innocent facade as he runs Euthyphro around in circles and ultimately into the ground. I've heard a lot about Socrates's logic, but this is the first time I've actually been able to see it myself, and it makes me realize that the few "Socratic Discussions" I had in high school and what college I've had so far were really not very Socratic at all. In fact, I really had no idea what Socratic reasoning really was (though I thought I did) until I read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
I forgot that I've read that since moving up here, too. Shoot. That isn't fiction, but perhaps it deserves a review.
Meh. Suffice it to say that it's a good book, one that will not be a waste of your time, should you ever decide to read it.
Good enough.
Anyway, what was I saying?
Oh! Plato. Yeah. Kay. Plato's good; had I a better attention span, I'd promise myself to read lots and lots of Plato (he is a pretty important figure, after all), but I'm pretty sure that I would never keep such a promise, so I'll satisfy myself by believing that I really will read the remaining three dialogs.

Well, that does it, I guess.
Oh, wait. That's right:

"The Quiet Man" by Maurice Walsh

This was a fun story. I recommend it mostly on the grounds of proving that omniscient POV can work. The story itself, though fun, certainly doesn't stir much emotion in this cold heart; it's one of those little-guy-teaches-big-guy-a-lesson kind of stories, which I know is a beloved premise in many circles, but I've pretty much grown out of that phase into a more morbid phase wherein I sometimes enjoy the big guy winning even when the little guy deserves to win because then we don't get false expectations of reality (of course, in reality the Good Guy always wins; see Post 9).

So. NOW we're done.
Though I still have a long list of Fictitious Works I Intend to Read, it may be a while before I get around to them because I also have a long list of Nonfiction Books I Own but Have Not Read, and that may well take higher priority.
We shall see; I have a four-day weekend coming up in a couple days (my school district has a "Fall Beak"), so I may make a run on the library and have all kinds of reviews for you.
Till then--or when next I post--adieu.

Post 26

So! Book reviews! Yeehaw!
Not really book reviews, though, because because I've read a lot of short stories lately, so we shall call this Quazi-literary Rantings. Again, yeehaw!

Today's agenda: "The Quiet Man," 1984, Of Mice and Men, Ishmael, To Kill a Mockingbird, "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "The Birthmark," "Young Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil," and "Euthyphro."
Wow! I better get going on this.
This post may become serial....

The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh (v1.0)

The reason this review come first is because of something I want to say regarding the writing of fiction that may be good to keep in mind. As an aspiring author--which I am, more or less, off and on--I have often encountered this ridiculous idea of the existence of "rules of fiction."
In my last post, I mentioned that I am not a fan of unstructured poetry. I want you to understand that this does not mean that I am a fanatical purist who loves only sonnets and limericks and other such formally structured things (which you surely gathered from the rest of that post). I think the important thing is that a poem set its own structure from the beginning and then adhere to it ever afterward. I'm okay with a few detractions from the pattern ("The Raven" has a few extra syllables here and there; "Annabel Lee" has an extra line at one point), but any such detractions must be for the good of the poem as a whole.
That said, I think that each individual work of fiction must, like poetry, set its own rules and then adhere to them, and I think that this must be done not only in the story itself but also in the style of the storytelling.
"The Quiet Man" employs an omniscient point of view, which I imagine is generally considered a sloppy sort of way to tell a story, but I kinda liked its effect. Overall, the story was enjoyable to read, and the omniscient POV did not in anyway detract me from the story.
That said, I'll save an actual review till later.
Moving on.

1984 by George Orwell

I consider myself at least fairly adept at recognizing my biases, but I'm usually not very good at setting them aside because I don't feel that to do so is entirely possible; generally, I just try to state them clearly so whomever I'm addressing can use them as a reference point. So, just for fairness sake, I wish to impress upon your mind the fact that I hate this book! Got it? Okay, let's move on.
This is the only Orwell story I've read, I believe, though I did watch the animated version of "Animal Farm" in a high school history class, so I can't say much about him as an author except that, if this book is any indication, the man was certainly a genius. Even hating the story as I read, I couldn't help but admire its quality. Near as I can tell (having only read it once), the story progresses naturally and maintains consistency within itself--it certainly follows its own rules.
That said, it also helped me to understand why I think long fiction generally fails in its aims. Noting the quote from Poe on my last post, 1984 is prime example of the grave danger of longer works. Orwell's focus in the story is extremely tight; he digresses very little, every event moving us closer to his ultimate effect, but it's just too long! Right around 50 pages before the book concluded, I remember thinking, "If [such and such happens] in the end, I will throw this book through the wall!" As it turns out, [such and such] did happen in the end, but, by the time I got there, I was too exhausted to care very much, mostly just happy to be done with the wretched ordeal of suffering through it. If all the horror of that semi-lengthy volume could somehow be distilled into short-story form--uh--well--that would probably be a little potent, maybe to the point of being physically lethal to readers, but if 1984 were more the length of Of Mice and Men, I probably would have thrown the book through the wall and gone on some sort of crusading tirade to save the world from itself; as it was, I was just lethargic and vaguely disturbed for several days afterward--still am a bit disturbed at times, in fact, whenever those scenes come back into my mind.
So, as far as impact goes, 1984 is about the most powerful fiction I've yet encountered. My only qualm with it, really, so far as quality is concerned, is the title (which is probably a little hypocritical), but as it turns out, the author initially entitled it The Last Man in Europe, but the publisher felt that that wasn't a very marketable title and convinced him to change it. Pity, I think, but I don't suppose we can very well hold it against Mr. Orwell (is it wrong to call him that? It is a pseudonym, after all).

I suppose I should come up with some complicated system of rating these works if I'm going to go to the trouble of reviewing them--may as well, anyway.
I don't want it to be too subjective, though, so howabout

Quality and likability being rated 1-10

Seems sufficiently random....
Okay, so 1984 gets a 9 on quality and a 2 on likability, which gives it a 67 (rounding up) out of 100.
Hm. Yeah, I can see that.
For a formula I just randomly invented, that isn't too bad; I may modify it later, though, if I feel the need.

Moving on:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Here's another quality work of fiction that I did not enjoy, but I hate this one far less than I hated 1984 and actually even appreciated it a bit.
This is another example of a very focused storyteller at work: the opening scene is important to the closing scene; the story is brief and gets directly to the point; every character serves a purpose to the plot--even Candy's old, smelly, blind sheep dog. All in all, very well done.
As far as titles go, this may be the most poignantly titled work in history--if you get the allusion to Robbie Burns. In fact, it was as I closed the book after the story's conclusion and saw the title that I was filled with sadness, not at the final depressing scene. The best laid plans... yes indeed....
I have one major complaint against the quality of this classic, though: the closing sentence. The back cover of my copy of 1984 told me that Mr. Orwell would keep me riveted from the opening sentence to "the last four words," or something like that. Often, my intense curiosity regarding those last four words was the only thing that compelled me onward, urging me to finish the story to see what they were, and I was not disappointed.
(Well, strictly speaking, that isn't true: I was extremely disappointed, but not in the impact of those words, just their meaning, which was the point; they are perfectly engineered to infect you with a debilitating sort of disappointment in humanity--all in just four simple words!)
The last sentence of Of Mice and Men had a similar design, I believe, but rather than making me think "AH! WE'RE ALL GOING TO HELL!" they made me think "Stinkin' retard! Haven't you paid attention to anything?"
Steinbeck missed his mark on that one--at least as far as I'm concerned--and probably would've been better off to have the story end with Slim and George walking sadly toward the highway.
A lot of Mr. Steinbeck's style struck me as kind of clunky, too; sometimes he would describe something at length and I wouldn't be able to visualize what he was saying. Most notably, Curly's introduction didn't make a bit of sense to me; I realize the intent was to show him as a fiery sort a fellow--a cowboy equivalent of Hotspur, I guess--but he struck me as unreasonably volatile and not very believable. Also, Lennie's hallucination's at the end struck me as irrelevant or, at the very least, out of place.
Overall, though, not a bad execution of the story; I'll certainly be far more likely to reread this book in 5 or 10 years than 1984.
Quality: 5
Likability: 7
Total out of 100: 57 (rounding up)

Hm. Yeah. This formula is garbage.
Moving on....

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

This is an amazing work of fiction!
That said, I'm not sure how much I'd recommend it....
The thought that went into this novel is very impressive; anyone else thinking "I want to write a story about a revolutionary philosophical view of humanity" would have written an elaborate story of a man seeking wisdom, and when he found the greatest and wisest philosopher in the world's history (who naturally would have been an old man with a weird name like Stanzlby), the story would have concluded, "And then he told me all his secrets, and now I am happy," leaving us, as readers, to wonder what those secrets were. But generally such secrets are left a mystery because the author doesn't have them to tell.
Not so with Ishmael. In Ishmael, any elaborate quest by the narrator to find a vernerable Stanzlby (and he does mention that such a quest was made and abandoned) happened before the story in the book begins; the bulk of the novel is the unfolding of this revolutionary philosophical view of humanity--which, as I said, is very impressive.
Ishmael is not like most fiction, and I think that's why I like it so much. Rather than having an enthralling plot and interesting characters with rich and insightful undertones, Ishmael is mostly about this philosophy. There is a simple plot and two principle characters with 3 or 4 very minor supporting roles, but most of the story is found in the character progression of the narrator, which ultimately becomes the character progression of the reader as we learn and change along with him.
And therein lies the danger of this book. My worry is that if everyone in the world read this book, a huge chunk of humanity would accept it as gospel truth and form religions that center around its teachings--and my understanding is that that has actually occurred to some extent. I feel I greatly benefited by reading this book; I found it insightful, and it opened my eyes to ideas that I had never imagined. All in all, I think I'm a better person because I have read this book, but I only think that that is true because I am well founded in my faith and have a pretty clearly defined view of the universe and my relationship to it--furthermore, I'm confident that the things I believe are true. Therefore, as I read this book, I was able to bounce its philosophies off of the sounding board of truth and easily determine which were worth believing and which were merely interesting from an intellectual stance; had I not been able to do so, I may have been converted to its teachings, and who knows where I'd be now!
I love this book, but I do not give the general population the recommendation to read it (my rating formula having been abandoned, we'll call that good enough).

Well, that's all the time I have for now. I'll be back later.

06 October 2007

Post 25

Another thing that deters me from really appreciating fiction is a complete lack of attention span. For this reason, I am a huge fan of short fiction right now; I would much rather the work I'm reading be a guillotine than a thumbscrew (or, be it uplifting, a hug than a Swiss massage).

Today, I was subbing at a High School and betook myself with perusing the various literature collections that comprised all my company during the solitude of the two hours that a prep period immediately preceding lunch bestows upon me. I was elated to find many works of Poe--or, rather, the same two or three found in all five or six books, but two or three is better than none. I love Edgar Allan Poe; I think he's great! Ever since I broke down the meter of "The Raven" back in 9th grade, I have had a deep appreciation for the man. Today, I found the following quotation, something Poe said that makes me feel less alone in the world:

"A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to be outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction."

Yes! Yes yes yes yes YES YES YES!!! And I think this is more often attained in shorter works.

Unfortunately, because I got so enthralled with Mr. Poe's poetry today, rather than the promised book reviews, I want to say a little about poetry, but keep that thought in mind, for it shall surely come up when I get around to reviewing various books.

Edgar Allan Poe is (and has been since 9th grade) my favorite poet--who can deny that his name is the very rootword of his craft? The musical canter and amazing consistency in structure and rhyme in "The Raven" is as flabbergasting to me today as it was 7 or 8 years ago when I first discovered it. If you are unacquainted with its genius, I recommend that you read it.

Try as I might, I have a very difficult time appreciating unstructured poetry. I don't spurn it, per se; it just isn't my thing. Because of that, I may well be unsuited to be a poetry critic--and, if that is not a good reason to deem me unworthy, there are bound to be scores of others--so I shall resist going in depth into structure and such like because, frankly, I have no credentials. Nevertheless, I just want to point out this one couplet:

'Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -

Do you see it? It's easier to pick up in context because the rhyming trio in the third and fourth lines of each stanza becomes expected; this one is my personal favorite: "that is" "lattice" and "thereat is"--BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT, I SAY!


I'm not sure that you fully appreciate the moving rhythm of this poem, though, so I will do something that I am even less qualified to attempt than critiquing poetry: recite it. I just hope that I don't in any way mar your opinion of this fine piece. If you have any worries that I might shake your naturally high esteem of this poem, please do not play this clip; I could never absolve such a grievous offense. Despite the fact that I spent most of my two-hour break reading and rereading the poem aloud, I still cannot quite recite it at the tempo I would like to without my tongue tripping here and there. Nevertheless, until I memorize it, this is probably about as well as I can manage (Note that I kind of imagine myself doing this onstage, dancing, and when it comes time, I shout, "Quoth the raven" and then point the mic at the audience so they can shout "NEVERMORE!"):


But today I discovered another poem by Poe, one that I actually like better--my new favorite Poem: "The Bells"; if "The Raven" is rhythmic, "The Bells" is downright catchy. Though I could not remember any of the words except "bells, bells, bells!" yet I shouted those words rhythmically, maniacally the whole drive home (roughly twenty minutes). Looking at "The Bells," I was afraid that it was exactly the sort of poem that I would not like: inconsistent, unstructured, unrhyming. That is, to a certain extent, true, I suppose, in the same way that the first appearance of polyphony in masses may have made several Catholics think, "Hey, that doesn't sound like normal music!" "The Bells" transcend all my comprehension of what meter and rhyme are or mean; I cannot express to you quite what I mean. You can read it here, but be sure you read it out loud lest the effect be lost.

If my reading of "The Raven"--a poem I have adored for a long time--is unrefined, then my interpretation of "The Bells" is hardly worth sharing, nevertheless I want you to understand what this poem does to me, so here is my attempt:



04 October 2007

Post 24

My dear AP British Literature teacher, Mr. Richards--I had many teachers whilst enrolled in public schooling, but 'twas not till I learned at his feet in the 12th grade that I had one who honest-to-goodness changed my life, revolutionized my thought processes, completely altered the way I perceive reality--this great man coined the term (at least as far as I know) "pseudo-intellectual." Never, though, until just recently did I ever feel guilty of pseudo-intellectualism, but somehow mine eyes have been suddenly opened wide to my own hypocrisy, and I RECANT!

Ever since being taught by the immortal (though now retired and vanished) Mister Richards, I have wanted to become what one might call "well read," but there was always a sort of insurmountable barrier between me and Wellreddendom: a whole lotta reading. I've always been a bookish kind of guy, nevertheless my desire to be well read was not so much to read great books as to have read great books so I might be able to flaunt my knowledge and wellreddenness. [Isn't it stupid how I misspell "read" in such invented words?] About all I learned from my pre-mission education was that Classics take a long time to read (Richards taught me to think not to love), and time is, to me, a very expensive commodity (not that I have anything terribly important to do).

After moving to the exotic land I now call home, I became aware of a new hurdle on the road to wellreddendom: somewhere in the last few years, I lost my love for fiction--or rather I grew up enough to learn that modern fiction is largely unimpressive and pointless. Now, now, now--before you grab your pitchforks and torches and hunt me down, I want you know that I express this sentiment knowing full well that, in so doing, I may well be missing the entire point of fiction, but I--and this is important--I don't care. I am in a defining moment of my life; anything that changes me or forces me to at least reconsider and rearrange my perceived norms is, to me, necessarily good. Any feel-good, happily-ever-after story is, in my mind, nothing but a senseless hippie-la-la waste of my time. And I don't mean to say just books, but art in any form--if it doesn't change me, it isn't worth my time. (If you think I'm just blowing smoke on this matter, allow me to make an appeal to authority--real Authority: God.)

This sudden loathing of fiction has brought me to a deeper appreciation of fiction, though. Shortly after moving here, and friend of mine lent me the final Harry Potter book. I really had no desire to read it--volume six shut me off hardcore--but, having invested all the time into reading all of the other books, I had to know how Rowling would finish the series off. Not cherishing the thought of suffering through a week or two of reading just to find out how the darn thing ended, and believing reading only the last couple chapters to be completely immoral, I sat down one day and read it--all of it--in a single go. Swallowed it whole, so to speak; finished shortly after 6:00 in the morning. Quite nearly every anticipation of disappointment I had was fulfilled--the epilogue is about as trite and hippie-la-la as fiction gets (especially at 6am!)--but I read it, and now I have a sure knowledge of my distaste rather than a mere premonition.

Many years ago, we all had a good laugh sitting around the breakfast table when the younger of my two sisters chewed a multivitamin that was meant to be swallowed whole--haha! Poor girl doesn't like pills in the first place, now here she is gagging and choking and guzzling orange juice when, if she had simply swallowed it whole, she could have gotten the benefits without the suffering. Thus it seems to me with fiction: swallow it whole and then allow it to digest for as long as is needed. Kinda like shoveling in as much Chinese food as you can at a buffet in a race against your stomach's ability to register full.

Since moving here, I have started and left unfinished The Sign of Four by Sir Author Conan Doyle, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Firm by John Grisham, and even a little bit of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne. I started each with high hopes, even enjoyed them as I read (with the exception of Grisham, who I say should have just stuck with law--the man can't write!), but whenever some call of duty came, I would insert a bookmark, walk away, and never find myself able to pick them back up.

But, thanks to my swallow-it-whole methodology, I have now read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, 1984 by George Orwell, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and "Euthyphro" by Plato, and I have a pile of books waiting to be swallowed, which I intend to dispatch before the end of the month (some C. S. Lewis, some Emerson and Thoreau, and "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" among them). The impact is--sometimes brutal (keeping with the ingestion metaphor, 1984 gave me some hardcore indigestion, kept me disturbed for a good 72 hours), but overall I do not find this exercise at all distasteful.

I do not claim to be wise; I certainly don't recommend this to anyone, but I will become well read, or I will die trying! I intended to include some reviews herein, but this post is already long enough, so I end here.