Sunday, May 31, 2009

Academic writing: pro and con

Last week, I read Susan Gubar's book Judas: A Biography, and it bothered me for two big reasons. One, being the old curmudgeon I am lately, I get pissed off at the labeling of books as biographies that are not actually accounts of a person's life. Can there be a biography of John Kennedy? Yes, too many, in fact. Is a book on the Kennedy family a biography? I guess so. Can there be a biography of the martini? No; as wonderful and god-given as the martini is, it's not a person. Can there be a biography of the gypsy moth? Hell, no. Can there be a biography of a concept or an idea? I don't think so.

What Gubar does is relate the history of the idea of Judas Iscariot, and since there is very little information extant about his life (do we even really know he was a living, breathing person?), she can't write a biography. The idea of reading a book about the idea of Judas is interesting, and I did learn here that, like Jesus or Lincoln or Ebenezer Scrooge, the figure of Judas is complex and has been "read" culturally in a variety of ways over the years: as a Satanic betrayer, as a fighter for justice who thought he was helping further Jesus's political agenda, as a man who was pulled unwillingly into God's overarching plan for human salvation, as a anti-Semitic symbol. Jesus Christ Superstar colored my perception of Judas, and I have usually seen him as a tragic figure, unwillingly chosen to play a necessary part in the Christian story of redemption.

While there are some interesting observations made in the book, my second problem with it is the stiff academic style of the writing. Now, Gubar is an academic and has done important work for the academic community (I'm thinking of The Madwoman in the Attic, an highly influential work in feminist criticism which she co-authored). Maybe it's only because I'm no longer in academia and haven't read a seriously academic book in a few years that the style here bothers me (though I do read a lot of general-interest non-fiction). Long sentences and paragraphs per se don't bother me--I've been told I have a tendency toward those things myself. But she is guilty of what seems to be willful obfuscation, making what has been marketed as "popular" non-fiction by W.W. Norton, a serious but not necessarily academic publisher (Norton anthologies notwithstanding), an obscure and tangled read. Worse, she pads out the length of the book with passages in which she tells us what she's going to say, and later what she's said, inserting herself in the book a little too often. I finished the book but did a lot of skimming during the last half. I'd recommend reading an in-depth review of the book rather than the book.

The next book I read had the opposite problem. 1969: The Year Everything Changed, by Rob Kirkpatrick, held particular appeal to me as someone who almost literally came of age in 1969, which was the year I hit puberty, and the year I became interested in news and politics, and the year I immeresed myself in pop music, but all that is fodder for a Twitterface blog post. Kirkpatrick thinks that 1968 has always gotten more attention as a watershed year in American history, but that the fallout of that year's events which played out the next year makes '69 even more important.

I'd like to believe that, I guess, but this book doesn't prove that point. Kirkpatrick covers all the basics, from Vietnam to Charles Manson to nudity and sexual content in pop culture to the moon landing to important musical firsts (Led Zeppelin, Neil Young & Crazy Horse), and, of course, Woodstock and Altamont. While it's fun to read about all these things (in roughly chronological order, with the book's chapters arranged by season), the author never makes an overarching point. Despite his title, he really has no thesis. This book could have used some of Gubar's academic rigor, if not her writing style.

The single most interesting point he makes is that Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" was "an unlikely hit, unlike anything ever played before on AM radio." Now that the song is a golden oldie, it doesn't seem so unusual, but it was a strikingly strange piece of music for mass consumption: blues riffs, sexual references like "backdoor man," and that crazy explosive middle section. I'm not sorry I read this book (and I admit I skipped the chapters about the Mets), but I wish it had actually made the argument its subtitle promises. And, like way too many professionally published titles these days, it has typos (it's Gram Parsons, not Graham, and the song "Strawberry Fields" has the word "Forever" in its title). Yes, I've come out as both a curmudgeon and a grammar bitch.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

iPod Archives: Random "S" songs

"Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen is a beloved, much-covered classic, with Judy Collins' version being probably the most familiar, but you should hear the weirdly poppy version by Noel Harrison (Rex Harrison's son) from 1967 that made the Hot 100. It's good, but it's so poppy-catchy, not at all like Cohen's dreamy original.

"Sunset Grill" by Don Henley is an epic song about a rough urban neighborhood filled with "basket people" mumbling and working girls going by and boozers and "jerks" and no dignity, and yet the singer and his girlfriend just can't seem to get up the energy to leave, because, after all, all their friends are there. The lyrics and storyline aren't epic, but the length is (over six minutes) as is the arrangement, especially the long ending with its guitars and brassy horns and loud synthesizers. The song would have been great on a soundtrack, and when I hear the last 2 minutes of the song, I imagine a long tracking shot along a street after some kind of urban tragedy, with the camera moving slowly away, starting to pan up in an escape shot into the sky, but never quite making it into the clouds.

"Sweet Hitch-Hiker" was one of the last top 40 songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band that, for all their numerous memorable hits, were only together for about four years. I love their music, but this one always struck me as really hot, as in sexy hot: it seems to be about a guy on a motorcycle who spies a hot blond girl hitchhiking and they either do or don't get together. It's got a speedy little rhythm and John Fogarty has a nice catch in his voice on "Hitch-a-HI-ker" in the chorus. But when I was 16, this song made me think of the scruffily sexy John Fogarty riding up to me in tight black leather, his legs hugging his hog (is that the right word?), and singing to me, "Won't you ride on my fast machine?" I still get a little shivery...

"Sway," an easy-listening mambo number from the 50's, has been done by dozens of artists, from Dean Martin to Michael Bublé, but my all-time favorite is by Rosemary Clooney, backed by Cuban bandleader Perez Prado and his band. It's from a fabulous album called A Touch of Tabasco in which Clooney and Prado perform exotic versions of standards like "Mack The Knife," "You Do Something to Me," and most memorably, put a riotous cha-cha spin on "I Only Have Eyes for You" (which was used as an ad jingle a few years ago). The album, from 1960, was available as an import CD but appears to be out of print now, so check iTunes.

"Sweet Cream Ladies" was a top 40 hit for the Box Tops, though my first memory of it was as an ad jingle for some kind of Jell-O cream pie confection, and that's how I always remember the song. It's a peppy little marching tune, but a cursory examination of the lyrics shows that it's a song about prostitutes: "Sweet cream ladies, do your part/Think of what you're giving/To the lost and lonely people of the night/...They will love you in the darkness/Take advantage of your starkness/And refuse to recognize you in the light." Yes, it's peppy!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Outsider stories, part 2

Tales from Outer Suburbia is the latest book by writer and illustrator Shaun Tan. Though his books are published by Scholastic and marketed to a young readers, they really seemed more pitched at teenage loners who would dare to read what looks like a "picture book" for kids and adults who will delve into the childrens book section for something other than Harry Potter. That would seem to be a commercially limiting range, but I still think he's on to something.

I read his previous book, The Arrival, which was a wordless graphic novel about the disorientation an immigrant feels living in a new land, though in this strange book with a fantasy overlay, the new arrival faces not just new customs and foods, but odd little creatures and strangely shaped buildings. This book has a more traditional format, illustrated short stories, but an equally odd slant to content and tone.

The book feels like a Ray Bradbury collection on the order of The Martian Chronicles. Not only do most of the stories have a surreal fantasy element, they are also loosely tied together by a common setting, an unnamed Australian suburb, that will nevertheless seem very familiar to suburban American kids. Each story has a Twilight Zone feel to it, rather like The Arrival. In fact, one story is like The Arrival in miniature, with an otherworldly exchange student-creature visiting a family. In another, suburban families, stuck with huge missiles put in their yards by the government, decorate them in outrageous colors and designs. The most surreal story, "Our Expedition," involves two boys who decide to trek out to see what lies beyond the printed road map of their neighborhood.

Some of the stories have a dreamy feel to them, as in one of my favorites, "Undertow," in which a dugong (a sea cow-type mammal) is discovered beached in a front yard. My very favorite story is the creepy but immensely satisfying "Wake," in which neighborhood dogs get a strange revenge against an animal abuser. A few, like "Broken Toys," about a cranky old lady who eventually warms up to the neighborhood kids, are more traditional but most of the tales are at least a bit off-kilter, which is meant as a recommendation. Most are very short, 1 or 2 pages, and some are told in a bold mix of words and illustrations. I read this book weeks ago, and the tales have stayed with me more strongly than I thought they would. Search this out for yourself or the adventurous "outsider" teen reader in your life.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Outsider stories, part 1

I got tired of gay coming-out stories a long time ago. Not one-on-one personally told narratives, which I still find interesting to hear, but the literary genre. Their audience, I think, is largely intended to be young people for whom coming out is still a freshly-felt event, or for those who have yet to come out. I've also never been a reader of gay young-adult novels, partly because the few I read seemed so pedantic or full of strife and the threat of gay-bashing. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up a new gay YA novel, In Mike We Trust, by P. E. Ryan. I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, it's a post-coming-out story. Teenage boy Garth has already come out to his widowed mom and, though she seems more or less accepting, she asks him not to tell anyone else yet, worried about the possibility of physical abuse by bullies, but also obviously still not quite OK with his sexuality, and probably hoping it's a phase. He has a supportive gal pal and a part-time summer job at a junky, old-time (and beautifully described) department store, but otherwise seems to have little contact with anyone else over the summer until his uncle Mike comes to visit.

Mike is a drifter, a little disreputable but also a little cool, at least to Garth. He's supportive when Garth comes out to him, and even takes him on a little field trip to a gay bookstore where Garth meets a cute gay guy, a little more confident in himself than Garth, but not so far advanced that he's out of Garth's league. But Mike is also running a charity scam that he gets Garth to help him out with, leading to troubles all around.

In terms of the gay content, this is mostly an angst-free book; despite the mom's worries, there is never a threat of physical violence (at least not connected with his being gay). Garth's first date with Adam, a viewing of "Chinatown" on Adam's computer, comes off as both cute and realistic--that's Nicholson with his nose injury from the movie pictured. The book is set in Richmond, Virginia, so there is some local color, as well as the presentation of a theme concerning prejudice (against Southerners). The only real weakness is that we see Garth interact with so few people his age. Granted, it's set in the summer, and he does spend some time (theoretically) grounded for disobeying his mother, but he seems too isolated for a modern-day kid in a non-rural surrounding. Still, the book seemed like a breath of fresh air in its genre, and may prod me to see what else is happening with gay YA novels of the 21st century. Next time, another YA book from an outsider point of view.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

God is Santa

I effectively lost my religion in my teenage years. I was raised Catholic (though my mom was a non-practicing Protestant of some shade or another and now identifies herself as an atheist) and was dragged to Mass by my dad every Sunday of my young life until I was in college. My relationship with my dad was complicated, but for the purposes of this post, suffice to say that I loved him, but he was an an alcoholic and a Sunday-morning Catholic. In other words, aside from having a figurine of the Virgin Mary on a knick-knack shelf, Catholic faith and dogma didn't seem to play a big role in our everyday lives, but come hell or high water (even when Dad was mightily hungover), we had to be in a church pew every Sunday morning at 8:30.

There was no one moment when I realized I didn't believe in God; in fact, I have a hard time remembering any time when I did have a strong faith, except when I was five years old. The Christian God always seemed more like Zeus or Santa Claus to me, someone it was nice to think about and hear stories about, but those stories never seemed real. I think the yearning and searching for spiritual balm is real and justified, but belief in the specific stories that the major religions tell about their central iconic figures are not (justified, perhaps, in terms of the effectiveness of parables and allegories and the power of narrative, but not real).

Which finally brings me to the book I just finished, Losing My Religion by William Lobdell, a former religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times. It's an account of how Lobdell went from essentially having no religion, to being born again, to losing his faith, largely due to what he saw and heard on the church beat. The trigger for his loss was the Catholic child abuse scandal, not just how so many victims of abuse by priests have had their lives messed up, but by how the Church as an institution tried to hush the scandals up. Around the same time, he was also working on a story about how ex-Mormons are treated by their former friends and family members (total shunning). Finally, he admits to not understanding how, ultimately, most answers to questions about God's ways, especially when they seem cruel or capricious, come down to priests and ministers telling us, "It's God's plan, and it's a mystery."

To his credit, the book is not a screed about how horrible and dangerous religion is--though I must defend the more strident books of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as necessary in a body of popular literature in which the taking-on and taking-down of religion has always been taboo. Lobdell seems more sad than angry, and he does not trash most people of religion, particularly laypeople believers.

What I liked best in the book was his comparison of God to Santa Claus, which made so much sense to me. In the back of my mind, I've always assumed that, as all children must eventually come to the realization that there is no such magical being as Santa Claus, most thinking, rational adults eventually come to the conclusion that there is no supernatural God, at least not in the monotheistic, anthropomorphic way that most organized religions teach. I admit there are times when it would be nice and incredibly comforting to believe in a parental God who helps and punishes and has a nice, cozy spot (or not) in the afterlife waiting for me, just as I'd like to believe in ESP and ghosts and Zeus and Apollo and Santa Claus. There are moments in my adult life when I've almost believed in elves or astral projection, and, yes, God, but I can't be a thinking person and give myself over completely to such wishful, supernatural thinking. Not to mention the destructive behaviors, personal and social, that religion has facilitated over the years... but that's another blog post.

Monday, May 11, 2009

My 2 cents on Star Trek

...and 2 cents of criticism is all I should really get here as I'm not a Trekker, nor am I a Trekkie, nor am I a Star Trek fanboy. When I was growing up in the mid-60's, it seemed like kids either liked Star Trek or Lost in Space, and I was a Lost in Space fan, I think mostly because 1) it was about a family in outer space and I was part of a family in suburbia, and 2) one of the characters was a kid almost exactly my age, played by Billy Mumy, and I identified strongly with him. (I think I probably had a crush on him, too, but I wouldn't have processed it as such at the tender age of 11--those kinds of thoughts would have to wait another couple of years.)

While I'm not a Trek fan, I have seen many episodes of the original show, the Next Generation show, and 4 of the feature films in the series, so I do have some sense of what's going on in the Star Trek world. This "reboot," as it's being called, is essentially what would be called in comic books an origin story, telling how the original crew of the Enterprise got together. I won't rehash the plot at all except to say that the background stories for Kirk and Spock struck me as more complex than they needed to be, and that they break the show's backstory continuity (explaining these fissures away by relying on the old space/time continuum-rupture trick). The moviemaking was rather dismal, relying on the usual tricks of today's sf/action movies, such as a camera set to constant jitter, monsters with gaping jaws, and dark, dank interiors--though I do give J.J. Abrams credit for sticking with the same basic set and costumes as the original TV show when we're on board the Enterprise.

The acting is surprisingly good. Zachary Quinto is getting the most attention for his Spock impersonation, and he is indeed almost eerily like Nimoy's Spock--too young to be as commanding as Nimoy was, but then again the character is still young in this film. Chris Pine isn't as lucky with Kirk--I never really found myself thinking, yeah, this is James T. Kirk--but instead he more or less re-invents the role and does a fine job as a dangerously cocky young space cadet. (It doesn't hurt that Pine is fine eye candy; I may have to get the DVD just to freeze-frame the quickie shot early in the film of Pine in his tighty-whities). The rest of the crew are OK, though casting Simon Pegg as Scotty and John Cho as Sulu seems more like stunt casting than natural fits. Eric Bana is wasted as the nondescript villain, though Bruce Greenwood does a nice job as Captain Pike, who winds up out of commission for the bulk of the film. It was nice to see Leonard Nimoy as the older Spock, though he looks and sounds a bit unhealthy, which made me sad. Aside from the ridiculous camerawork, I have few complaints about getting dragged by my Trek-fan partner to see the movie during opening weekend. And I would not be sorry to see Pine and Quinto team up again.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Thunderbirds Are ... Huh??

For whatever obscure reasons, the mid-60's puppet-action TV show Thunderbirds completely passed me by, but when I saw that the full-length movie Thunderbirds Are Go, from 1966, was going to be on Turner Classic Movies, I felt compelled to watch it. Mother of God, I may never be the same. Well, I will be; I exaggerate (so unlike me). But it's still a mighty strange viewing experience. On Facebook, I likened it to watching Teletubbies while high, but actually, watching Teletubbies anytime after dark didn't require any other stimulant to achieve a state of altered consciousness, and it's the same with this movie.

The plot is so not crucial to enjoying the movie, but in a nutshell, a planned flight to Mars is scotched by sabotage, so the Thunderbirds (a bunch of guys, mostly brothers I think, led by their father) who style themselves as an "International Rescue" squad, are hired two years later to make sure the next attempt is successful. The square-jawed puppets are assisted by the drag-queenish Lady Penelope, riding about in her pink Rolls-Royce which doubles as a hydroplane. There's a crazy-ass dream sequence you must see to believe in which the blond sissy-boy brother Alan (pictured; my partner kept singing the "Misfit" song from Rudolph whenever he was on) imagines accompanying Lady Penelope to an outer-space discotheque, where a puppet Cliff Richard sings while cotton candy-colored mist swirls around.

The puppets are totally non-emotive, though their lips quiver sometimes, and we never see a puppet walk--they either locomote off-camera or are scooted around by bizarre banks of moving furniture. Even weirder, once in a while, a puppet will reach down to a desk to grab something and we get a cut to a pair of real human hands doing the grabbing. Long stretches go by where absolutely nothing happens except the characters talk to (or at) each other in fake scientific lingo.

Then suddenly, there are long stretches of rockets getting ready to be launched or things exploding, and this is where the movie is the most fun; the sets are clearly miniatures, but they are very well executed. I always get a frisson of delight at these kinds of sets because they look like something I could have built in my rec room when I was 10 (I was always building miniature sets for sf movies or for elaborate plays in my play area--building is the wrong word, more like assembling out of found objects).

Don and I had fun with some of the dialogue. At one point, a saboteur wearing a mask is approached by a Thunderbird guy who exclaims, "There's something wrong with your FACE!!" as he rips the mask off. They also have a little sign-off exclamation, "F-A-B!" which, according to the Internet tubes, means either "First And Best," "Full Acknowledgment of Broadcast," or "Fully Advised and Briefed." (I like the last one, if "briefed" refers to the state of their undergarments.) Or maybe it's just a way for a bunch of (mostly) straight puppetmen to shriek, "Fabulous! without compromising their masculinity. I could see this becoming a cult favorite of mine, if I ever get tired of John Waters movies or bad Bela Lugosi flicks.