Friday, January 29, 2010

Caught in the Rye

Yesterday, J.D. Salinger--the author of the famous novel Catcher in the Rye--passed away, and with his passing, we’ve lost one of the final representatives of the Beat generation. More striking, though, is that we’ve lost somebody who, I feel, shifted the focus of fiction for people growing up in America.

During the 1950s, young adults got their politics from novels, short stories, and poems; you got rad hipster cred if you dressed in black turtlenecks like a Trotskyite and were seen reading Kerouac’s On the Road in public. Allen Ginsberg published poems such as “Howl” and “America” and “Kaddish.” A generation of writers disaffected by World War II and square social expectations revolted through cross-country travel, James Dean-esque slick-haired rebellion, and through experimentation (in both literature and drugs, it goes without saying).

Before I say anything more, I have to level with all of you. When I first read it, I hated The Catcher in the Rye; I thought Holden just needed to shut up. I read him as proto-emo, in a way. (But then again, when I was young, I was always trying to be grumpy and old.) I reread the novel a few years ago, though, and I came to appreciate it in a lot of ways.

So where does Catcher in the Rye fit into all of this? Salinger’s novel fits the tropes of the Beat novel--rebellion, defying social expectations, defying expectations in general. But the novel also changed the expectations of young adult literature. Holden wasn’t concerned with all the fake, hokey drama, and he made it abundantly clear that we wanted to dispel artifices of manner or behavior; through this lack of concern, though, he demonstrates just how important this stuff is. Conversation, emotions, that inner core of humanity are what drive both narratives and people.

Nowadays, young adults don’t get their politics from books. (Well, some of do, but I doubt that’s the case for the majority.) After all, there are enough politics on the radio, television, and the Internet--we're utterly swamped in politics! Instead, young adults are going to books--think Twilight or Harry Potter or almost any other children’s/y.a. lit out there--to get away from politics and for validation of the same things that Holden Caulfield went searching for. An understanding of the self, of others. It’s akin to the classic bildungsroman form that we’ve had across four centuries of English literature.

So in honor of Salinger, go to your local bookshop or library and pick up a copy of Catcher in the Rye. Give it a read (it’s a short book, should only take a day or two, tops). And ask yourself why you read.

I’m sure it’s not for politics. I imagine it’s to find something meaningful and emotionally compelling in the text and not, as Holden decries the expectations of most readers, to find “all that David Copperfield crap….my whole goddamn autobiography or something.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Some Unintended Eavesdropping, and a Necessary Social Lesson

Even in Pennsylvania, it’s possible to find tolerance.

I was at a café this weekend, where I was finishing John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Sitting at a table near mine were a young woman with a son (about four- or five-years-old, if I had to guess) and, sitting across from them, one of the mother’s friends.

The mother talked about her son recently playing with stuffed animals. And these stuffed animals--in pairs, in threes--were getting married; cats married dogs married dolls, and they were all different genders, as well.

And the mother wasn’t complaining, nor did her friend crinkle up her nose or stomp away in disgust.

They praised the boy. And rightfully so.

Sure, there are some things a five-year-old boy wouldn’t understand, and so let’s overlook the issues of polygamy and interspecies dating (ostensibly responsible for that dreadful Nickolodeon show Catdog). The mother explained the boy’s reasoning for why the stuffed animals were all getting married: “Well, they’re best friends, and that’s what best friends do.”

The boy then parroted, in his bright and squawking voice, “That’s what best friends do!”

I’m not saying that all best friends should frolic down the aisle and get hitched right this very moment. I am saying, however, that this mother talking about her son’s game shows that our society is, in some way, advancing and becoming more tolerant. What was fantastic about this little conversation is the reassurance that there are some parents out there who are encouraging their children to be open-minded. There, at least, was a mother who was, by letting her child play minister to dozens of stuffed animal marriages, telling her son that there’s nothing different or wrong about the love between a woman and a man, between two women, or between two men.

Every woman and man--and apparently every teddy bear and Pound Puppy--has the right to love whomever they want to love.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Television Review: The Comeback

Generally, comebacks are not viewed favorably. (See, for instance, Strong Bad’s return to checking emails and Homestar’s frustration at the end of it.)

Really, however, a comeback results in an attempt to regain those fifteen minutes of fame, usually in a very self-serving way. And often, the person pursuing a comeback overestimates the amount of control s/he has over the situation.

Lisa Kudrow (Friends) stars in the HBO comedy series The Comeback, which aired for one series; Kudrow portrays the B-list sitcom actor Valerie Cherish, who peaked in the early ’90s with her role on the sitcom I’m It.

I’d be lying if I didn’t reveal my reason for buying this series from the Staples $5 bin: I wanted to see Lisa Kudrow dressed up as a giant cupcake.

In the end, I got what I paid for, if only because Kudrow’s character--while dressed as a pink-frosted cupcake--gut punches a television writer, an act that results in a bout of double-vomiting. But moments like this demonstrate the height of the show’s slapstick comedic material; these instances, which are far and few between, highlight The Comeback’s focus on the personal drama of Valerie Cherish.

In most programs, a lack of chemistry would be viewed as a fault; in The Comeback, Cherish--who often has difficulty relating to her husband, step-daughter, directors, and cast and crew--reminds of the artificiality of reality television. Because we do have personal reflections, in our minds; we just don’t have to edit them or consider what other people will think. Our thoughts keep to ourselves, unlike Cherish’s personal video diaries or interviews.

Often, Cherish tells the camera woman recording her reality show that “I need to know I’m being heard,” and this repeated statement uncovers the deep sadness of Cherish’s life: She is out of her prime, playing a bit part, and she has no control over the editors who piece the footage of her daily life into a television show.

I wouldn’t rush out to the store to buy The Comeback, but it’s at least worth borrowing through Netflix or through a friend. The program has some amusing moments, but it also presents a poignant reflection on reality television: that, regardless of how “unscripted” the program is, there are voices vying for control of the narrative.

Watch the HBO Trailer for The Comeback.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Technical Difficulties--Coming Back on Friday

Been experiencing a few technical difficulties over the past few days. I'll be back with a proper post this Friday.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hamster Stories, or What Pets Say about Us

Hamsters, like high school, are one of those universals of American childhood. Even if your first-grade class didn’t have Snuffles the Hamster as a class project, where you and a mob of six-year-olds resorted to fisticuffs, name calling, and pig-tail pulling in order to determine who fed the rodent today, you’ve at least heard others trading their personal hamster stories like last year’s baseball cards.

Some hamster stories I’ve heard: the eighth-grade math student teacher who dropped his hamster into a pot of boiling tomato soup (allegedly by accident) and then attempted to bandage the poor critter’s limbs, the hamster who fled and then spent a year living in the basement walls while living off pilfered dog food, an escaped hamster discovered several weeks after its departure in the bottom of a bag of rice. And don’t get me started on the summer my next-door neighbor in Susquehanna’s dorms had two hamsters that I had to hamster-sit on the weekends--weekends filled with shrill hamster chirps. That resulted in lots of squirmy, squeaky, baby hamsters that tried to eat each other.

So let me make this abundantly clear: Hamster stories never end well.

And, as Christine Schutt shows us in her short story “To Have and To Hold,” gerbil stories are quite similar in their lack of happy endings.

“To Have and To Hold” homes in on a few moments in a woman’s life as she cleans her kitchen and chases after escaped gerbils--both of whom have eaten off their own tails. The narrator is shockingly candid about her feelings toward the pets: “I hate the gerbils. Nothing about them is cute; they twitch and gnaw. The animals live in a plastic night-glow cage set next to the stove, because this kitchen is small, even if it is on Fifth Avenue, and here they scrabble and play and shred their tray paper--dirty animals that eat their own tails.”

But Schutt isn’t writing simply to show us the horrors of rodents in the apartment; these gerbils squirm into the narrator’s consciousness, and the hiding places and cannibalism of the gerbils present a mirror world to the narrator’s own domestic situation. Her husband has taken a lover, somebody who has been a close friend of hers, and suddenly the situation of the gerbils--devouring their own tails in sport, spending their time hiding from each other--echoes the narrator’s life. Schutt works this metaphor deftly, avoiding anything as hackneyed as a direct admission of how the gerbils reflect her life.

Because, as far as the narrator can see, the gerbils do not mirror her life; she continues to see them as disgusting, as foul: “I admit it, I am driven. Last thing I do each night is wash my floor. One of the reasons the gerbils are such a problem is that they are so ridiculously dirty.”

Sometimes a gerbil is just a gerbil; sometimes, a rodent is more than that just a critter scurrying about. Schutt shows us how pets--loved or hated--can reveal the dynamics of a relationship, a domestic situation, or an outlook on life.

Schutt, Christine. “To Have and To Hold,” from Nightwork. Paperback. Dalkey Archive Press. 129 pp. $10.95.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Waiting on a Train

Short one today, because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling this weekend, during which I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I traveled from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., via Amtrak, and the choice in reading material was shockingly appropriate.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle--though it only mentions trains in relation to Tokyo’s transit system--is an exercise in patience, as Murakami guides readers through Toru Okada’s crumbling life. Okada, who encounters an array of bizarre characters, including psychics, a megalomaniacal politician, a “psychic prostitute,” and a morbid sixteen-year-old obsessed with a constant consideration of death.

Throughout the course of the novel, Okada waits and waits and waits--in a well, on benches, near subway stations, in cafés. But through these moments, Okada acquires a deeper understanding of himself and others in his attempts to absorb those environments and to comprehend the bizarre circumstances of his life--a decomposing marriage, friendships with women, a missing cat, and a strange series of encounters.

We usually view waiting as this non-descript space between events and transportation as a movement from one moment to the next. But all of this downtime--such as my rides on trains and a layover at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station--is actually a great opportunity to observe how people behave. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami uses Toru Okada and his perceptions of others as a way of reminding us that waiting can actually be a valuable opportunity for reflection.

But more on this waiting idea, after I finish Wind-up Bird Chronicle and then read Harold Schweizer’s On Waiting.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Television Review: Doctor Who, "The End of Time" Parts 1 and 2

Screenwriting, much like cooking, requires a proper application of ingredients and a careful use of techniques and tools. When I was in high school, my home economics teacher told an anecdote about how some of her early students cooked pasta; instead of cooking the pasta until it was al dente, the students spooned a noodle from the pot and flung it at the wall. If the noodles stuck, then they figured that the noodles were cooked.

I bring up this anecdote as a way to think of Russell T Davies, the godfather and story editor of the revived Doctor Who, as a screenwriter. There exist two Russell T Davies: The first flings story ideas like half-cooked noodles at the walls, and he uses whatever sticks; the other Russell T Davies is a master chef, capable of combining the essential ingredients of television narratives--character, storytelling, drama, and suspense--in a visual treat.

“The End of Time,” the conclusion of David Tennant’s tenure as the Tenth Doctor, reveals both of these Russell T Davies, apparently in league to cook up Tennant’s final hurrah.

[Note: In deference to those who have not yet seen the episodes, I have attempted to write as spoiler-free a review as possible.]

Part One of “The End of Time” is a smorgasbord of sounds, lights, action, and adventure. The Doctor’s nemesis and rival Time Lord, the Master (played by John Simms), exhibits all the characteristics of a Dragonball Z Super-Saiyan; he gets resurrected, becomes blonde, jumps ridiculous heights, has an insatiable appetite, and shoots energy bolts out of his hands. The episode’s aliens include green cacti (Vinvocchi) that hide their real shapes with a device called a shimmer. And the action of the episode--as Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbens) searches for the Doctor who in turn searches for the Master--seems to be an endless search for a discernible plot.

In the second part, Russell T Davies demonstrates his true aptitude as a storyteller and combines much of the Doctor’s past--the Time Lords (led by Rasillon, portrayed by former-Bond Timothy Dalton), the Master, and the oft-alluded to Time War. Whereas the previous episode mashed explosions, an energy-deprived Master, and a device that repairs the genetic matrices of entire planets, Part Two draws from Davies’s five years with the revived Doctor Who and shows the audience details from the Time War--Dalek saucers strewn about Gallifrey and the Time Lords’ high council--while finally investigating the Master’s recurring insanity. Davies also concludes the episode with a touching series of interactions between the Doctor and his former companions--a send off to both David Tennant and Russell T Davies, as well as their contribution to the Doctor Who mythos.

But the Doctor--who regenerates into the Otter Mullet foppery of Matt Smith at the second part’s conclusion--becomes a new man in more than face and form alone. Regenerations--when the Doctor cheats death by changing every cell in his body--in the revival have often demonstrated the Doctor’s compassion; he exchanges his life for those of his companions. But when the Doctor sacrifices himself this time around, he must destroy his people--the Time Lords--again in order to secure the safety of the universe and of time itself.

The Doctor becomes a man who can sacrifice anything--himself included--because, in “The End of Time,” he realizes that the responsibility of being the last Time Lord means that he must protect those everyday people, friends and companions, who do not have the control and influence over time that the Doctor possesses. And now that the Doctor has become a new man--now that Russell T Davies and David Tennant are leaving the show--we will have to see what the new production team cooks up.

Look for more of David Tennant later this year; PBS is allegedly going to broadcast the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, in which Tennant plays the famous Prince of Denmark.

Monday, January 4, 2010

(Ir)responsible Politics

Saturday afternoon, I drove to my parents’ house, two hours away, to watch the end of David Tennant’s tenure as the Doctor in the BBC series Doctor Who. While watching “The Waters of Mars” and the two-part “The End of Time” special, I listened to a fair bit of Obama bashing. (Hint: Expect a review of “The End of Time” this week.) Because of the conversation happening while I was trying to get lost in British television, I’ve had American politics on the brain for a few days.

I’m not writing today to deride my parents’ politics; people are entitled to their political views, regardless of whether or not we happen to agree with them. But there are responsible ways to address your political grievances.

Why this reflection? Saturday morning in Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, an effigy of President Barack Obama was found hanged along the community’s Main Street. I found this out through the BBC; many American news outlets are hiding this tidbit away and only using the Associated Press’s news release on the occurrence.

For a country that just shy of a year ago inaugurated its first African-American president, Saturday morning’s effigy is a cruel reminder of the way some people feel we should express our political opinions. Like something directly out of a William Faulkner novel, this event should remind us that whenever things change, people get scared, and they tend to look back to behaviors of the past. Instead of addressing the administration’s politics and agenda, somebody has pulled directly from the South’s sordid history of racial tension.

But Faulkner’s fiction--and here, I’m thinking of stories such as “A Rose for Emily” or his novel The Sound and the Fury--usually demonstrate that those old class hierarchies and that dependence on tradition are problematic, actually responsible for further social decay. The way in which Faulkner’s characters pine after the antebellum South--with both its slavery and its aristocratic glamour--reveals a culture that has stagnated and that collapses as the actual architecture of homes and plantations crumbles and rots.

But Faulkner’s characters--particularly Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!--find their thoughts mired in the past. They get stuck in this frame of mind and unable to move forward.

Listen: Barack Obama is a human being, and as such, he is not infallible. But there are responsible ways of demonstrating your political opinions. Write a letter to your legislature, get involved with a local organization of your political party, attend rallies, town hall meetings, pen a letter to the editor, get somebody’s attention with an argument--not a display of hatred and fear.

My opinion, for what it’s worth: If you don’t like President Obama’s policies, then attack his policies and back it up with ideas and evidence. Say what you don’t like, and why. Don’t attack the man just because you don’t like what he’s saying. That’s about as bad as high school students saying that they hate Shakespeare just because they don’t like Hamlet. The truth is, you don’t know Shakespeare and you don’t know Barack Obama. But you do know their work. Focus on that.

I believe that if America continues to use this fearmongering in its politics and if the population continues to deride people based solely on matters of ethnicity, faith, or sexuality, Faulkner’s image of the South as a collapsed aristocracy yearning for its glory days will become a template for America.

This country overwhelmingly elected an African-American president, and I would like to think that it can move beyond racial attacks. But there remain those who think its appropriate to hang an effigy of the president, which I think is several steps backward from November 2008. Racial politics haven’t left this country, and if there’s anything that we can learn (be it from the dilemma arising in Faulkner’s fiction or from the present circumstances of the Plains, Georgia, effigy), those of us who are lucid and level-headed enough to responsibly address our leaders--through phone calls, letters, grassroots organizations, or some contribution of money or time--have a Herculean task before us: showing others that there are non-violent means to working out our political problems.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Old Dramas End

As a quick introductory note (and as a future resolution), the next time I start a blog or any other major project, I won’t time it so that I hit two major holidays within a week of each other and within less than a month of starting the project. Everybody clear? Clear. Cool.

Abigail Zuger recently reviewed George A. Bonanno’s nonfiction book The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss for The New York Times (see In glossing over Bonanno’s book, Zuger writes about different reactions to the death of relatives—anger, fluctuations in mood, seemingly abnormal behavior such as an orphaned child smiling at the graveside. But there is a positive side to death and to life moving on; Zuger writes, “And some [mourners] realize early on that their lives have actually improved. The consuming worry about incurable illness is over. Old dramas end.”

This is perhaps an odd topic to introduce on New Year’s Day, but as of the time that I’m posting this--the ball dropping at Times Square in NYC, folks popping corks as champagne fizzes out of slender-necked bottles, phone networks clogging with calls like arteries with cholesterol as friends and family ring each other to ring in the New Year--we aren’t just celebrating the birth of a New Year. We’re moving on from the troubles and the tribulations of the year past, but we’re also mourning the loss of those great memories--new friends, new loves, excellent times with old friends and with family, exciting thoughts that spark the wick of thought like a match blazing bright.

Because, really, the glow of that match isn’t there anymore, at least not temporally speaking. That light continues to cast off warmth as a memory--comforting, but somehow a little hollow as that feeling of nostalgia singes the edges of the heart. We have the recollections of the past year, for good or for bad, and despite our coping mechanisms for losing 2009 (be that aggrandizing the year or lamenting it, cursing others or praising others, dwelling on it or moving on from it), we move on, forward, and then here we are! Twenty-ten/two thousand ten/two-aught-one-aught: Call it what you will.

The old dramas of twenty-aught-nine are over, and it’s time to see what 2010 will bring.