Friday, February 26, 2010

Mrs Peepcock, in the Conservatory, with the Revolver

Okay, before you read any further, you all need to check out some marshmallow peep dioramas:

Generally, I abhor the trend of festive candies being sold months before their respective holidays (example: at the Sheetz gas station in Bellwood, on December 26th, Reese’s peanut butter eggs--an Easter candy--were already being sold alongside Valentine’s Day treats), since it usually amounts to nothing more than a revenue-grabbing scheme.

And also, it kinda takes the fun out of holidays, having 90 days of a holiday instead of all that quiet anticipation building up to one fantastic moment, when you find that Easter basket or Christmas presents in bright paper. Waiting gets a bit bothersome.

But after the above reader-submitted link, I have a slightly different take on festive treats--provided you can make them fun.

Apparently, every year, the Washington, D.C. metro area sponsors this marshmallow peep diorama competition. What amazed me with all of these entries--aside from how punny most of these funny bunny scenes were--is the depth of pop culture references. The Twilight Zone, Clue, and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath are all parodied by the peep dioramas.

What’s intriguing about all of this is how these things still have cultural resonance, long after their respective eras. A number of writers complain that people just don’t have the minds they used to, that people aren’t as aware of things as they might have been back in the day. But that’s not the case here--this marshmallow com-Peep-itition is some tactile (and sugary) evidence that there’s still something fun and sweet in our catalogue of literary, board game, and television references. And people pay attention to--and remember--all of these things.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Artfully Done

A New York Times article on gay theatre shows us a rather interesting parallel to the political processes at work. Patrick Healy, the article's author, points to plays and musicals about gay life during the 1980s and 1990s, such as Angels in America and Rent, that focused on the political battles and activism, in that they pushed awareness of AIDS and political situations for practicing homosexuals.

That's of course something important to invoke in the cultural consciousness, but Healy argues that gay theatre is charting a new course, following a new tack. Instead of focusing on the political battles, gay theatre--through recent plays such as the off-Broadway musical Yank!--has turned to the domestic side of things. Yank!, for instance, is about a love affair between two men in the Army during World War II; though it has the potential to be political, its primary focus is on the relationship between the two men.

Basically, this theatre trend argues that everybody has an equal right to happiness, with whomever that might be.

It's an idea that I think politicized art often overlooks, that there are human beings out there, each being governed by rules, social norms, and expectations; these people have emotions, feelings, passions, and they cannot be easily reduced to a data set. That ignores who they are, what they feel, what they believe.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Power (and Controversy) of the Almighty Google

Google has come under--simultaneously--a great deal of scrutiny and a great deal of praise. When Stephan Pastis recently lampooned Google in his comic strip Pearls before Swine, the fear that his characters, the Crocodiles, exhibited is not unlike the fear surrounding the issue of Google’s book search. In Pastis’s strip, the Crocs feared the power of “ ‘Da Google’ ” to turn up any answer, any solution.

I’ll admit to being a product of my generation--Google searches are fun and easy. And the number of times I’ve used Google books to find what anthology contains which story by a particular author have been numerous. So it’s a great research tool, and as such is a boon to readers and writers alike.

However, there’s also the issue of intellectual property. Minor little thing, right? In New York, federal judge Dennis Chin has been hearing from both sides of the deal surrounding Google’s book search. The problem: Google scans the entire book if it’s out of print, but “out of print” does not immediately equate with “out of copyright.”

By way of example, James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners--published in 1914--is out of copyright in the United States and therefore in the public domain. However, many editions of the book continue to be published, precisely because of how popular it is. And if the book was published in the United States after 1922, odds are that it’s still under copyright, even if copies haven’t been printed for decades.

Proponents say that the deal with Google will allow publishers and authors to earn money from digitized copies of books that have been long out of print--in theory, a good thing, as it will allow people to access these long-lost works again. However, opponents charge that it’s still copyright infringement. They have a pretty solid argument, too: Basically, you can’t punish somebody for infringing copyrighted works by reproducing them without the copyright holder’s assent, and the proposed deal does little more than punish Google (for copyright infringement) by making it profitable for them to infringe copyright.


Yes, it is that confusing, and Judge Chin has commented, according to The New York Times, that he won’t rule immediately because there’s “just too much to digest.” (And of course, I find it a little funny that he says “digest,” because a digest can also be a consolidation of books and texts, and what are we dealing with on the Google books imbroglio if not this question of access to books?)

Read the article at The New York Times:

Monday, February 15, 2010

(Re)Writing History

Apologies for the title and a use of parentheses that, as far as I can tell, was last acceptable in the ‘80s, when every cool poststructuralist academic, her/his brother, and pet dog were making all kinds of puns. Also adored was the title containing two or more colons (yes, those do exist). Just be glad I didn’t throw one of those at you.

But if I were to write a paper on some of the creative re-imaginings of American history I’ve heard, I might need a colon or three. (And being Patrick Henry, I’ve heard lots of those, especially a teenager at the counter of a Virginia 7-11 asking me if I’m the guy that all those streets and stuff are named after. Note to self: Never pay for anything in Virginia with a credit card, ever again.) And misunderstandings, misconceptions abound not just in storefronts but in pulpits, newspaper columns, conventional wisdom, and--courtesy of Christian fundamentalism--possibly in a classroom near you.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine features an essay by Russell Shorto entitled “How Christian Were the Founders?” In this piece, Shorto explores a recent push by the Texas State Board of Education--which has enormous sway over other state education agencies--to include details about the founders’ alleged Christianity and how those principles founded American social and political culture.

This is the same state board that, Shorto reminds us, last year had conservative members pushing for a mandatory inclusion of intelligent design and young earth theories in science classrooms.

Shorto writes, “Recently, however--perhaps out of ire at what they see as an aggressive, secular, liberal agenda in Washington and perhaps also because they sense an opening in the battle, a sudden weakness in the lines of the secularists--some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society.”

There’s been ample evidence--on both sides of the issue--that the founding of the United States and the creation of the Constitution may or may not have had religious reasoning to it. But what’s being forgotten in this debate is that such an argument isn’t history--if by “history” we mean an aggregation of facts, the individual datum that like vertebrae stack upon each other and calcify into a backbone, into a linear spine of dates and events.

An argument on either side can occur quite easily. As a writer and literature student, I can easily investigate, for instance, Jefferson’s prose in The Declaration of Independence or the founders’ “Christian” references in the Constitution, things easily explained away by either political necessity, by groups of Enlightenment-era philosophers and humanists and scientists and wealthy business owners employing a religious discourse to validate their control over the economic, social, and political means of power and production (sound like anything that’s happening today?). But the religious movement can point to events--such as one that Shorto references--like Baptist ministers lobbying President Thomas Jefferson for protection, security, and a small bit of constitutional interpretation (hopefully, in their favor).

In requiring textbooks to explicitly reference the country’s Christian creation myth and favoring a conservative agenda (such as including Newt Gingrich, who’s “Contract with/on America” is actually quite minor compared to the prolonged and integral role of Senator Ted Kennedy, not included in the proposal), the Texas State Board of Education is not providing an actual and factual history, but a version of history. A particular critical fiction that they want people to buy into and believe.

Facts are not an argument; facts are the basis for arguments. And that’s what history is: Not a fact but an argument spun from bits of evidence, an argument that--depending upon its creator’s whims--can be contorted into one sort of personal fiction or another. So if you want to teach history, start with the events and don’t give students an interpretation, but encourage them to hunt for the evidence and the details and piece together a personal understanding of the narrative, based on facts and research and critical thinking.

Any of you involved in education (be that as students or teachers), I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say on this. Click on that "Comment" button and let me know what you have to say.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notes from a Reading

Originally, I expected to be spending most of this week in Albuquerque, where I was to be giving a talk on E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and presenting an ecocritical reading of the landscape used throughout the novel. But as I’m sure you’re aware (unless you’ve been snowed and frozen in a cave for the past few days), the entire eastern seaboard got canceled this week--including my flight out of Harrisburg.

So, I ended up being in Lewisburg for the week, which gave me the opportunity to hear Christine Schutt read from her novel All Souls yesterday evening. Schutt is the author of four books: the novels Florida and All Souls, and the short story collections Nightwork and A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer.

After an introduction from Porochista Khakpour at Bucknell Hall, Christine Schutt took to the podium and gave a few introductory remarks about All Souls. She noted that she wrote the novel while she had a fellowship in California and was 3,000 miles away from the sorts of New York parochial schools, where she has taught for many years and that inspired the characters and situations of the novel. Schutt said, “It figures: You go 3,000 miles to get away from a place and you can’t think of anything else.”

It was that time in California that gave Schutt the distance from the private, all-girls schools described in her novel, which thereby enabled her to write the book.

I’ve written about Schutt previously here on The Penguin in the Machine, and attending her reading last night reaffirms my opinions on her prose. Schutt’s style is at once minimalist and expansive, an exercise in creative atomic physics: Although her prose is sparse, spare, and powerfully compacted, the words press against each other and explode into images that are evocative, reeling, nuclear--the sensations of her prose leave readers emotionally charged, glowing and warm, for hours after reading Schutt’s prose or hearing her clear voice.

Schutt manages details expertly, positioning them to stand against each other and cast shadows and reflect glows, as depicted in All Souls when Carlotta goes to visit her friend Astra, suffering from a rare disease, in the hospital: “By the time Car got to the hospital, visiting hours were almost over, but Astra was awake, and when the girls saw each other, they cried. Astra was hooked to machinery and fenced off behind a castered table, so that Car stood aloof and cried….And what had she brought to show Astra? Old photos, the colors too bright; the beach, a hurtful white against the blue of everything else. Astra in a tented costume and Car in a bathing suit, and both of them laughing at Car’s father, who had taken pictures then.”

Schutt is a fantastic writer--a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist--and yet I hadn’t heard of her work until December 2009. If you haven’t read any of Schutt’s work, I recommend doing so; hers is a voice that shows that there is still experimentation, edginess, and beauty in American prose.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Over at the Bucknell University Press...

Howdy, all! If you follow the below link, you'll see a somewhat expanded (and also not written on an iPod) version of my review of the iPod app Manuscript. Just posted this at the Bucknell University Press blog. So take a gander! And if you have an iPod and an interest in writing, check out Manuscript.

Click here to access the Manuscript app review, or click here to see the main page of the Bucknell UP blog!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Video Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

First an iPod app, and now a video game. And all along, you were probably imagining that this blog is about books, right?

Really, it’s about stories.

First of all, I tend to enjoy anything that messes with the structure of time, and so back in 2000, when a younger version of myself was addicted to the award-winning Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Nintendo Power, I renewed my subscription early with a Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask bundle pack that included a collector’s edition gold-colored N64 cartridge of the game, an N64 expansion pack, and the official Nintendo Power player’s guide.

The game had plenty of things to anticipate: Improved graphics, improved use of the same engine of Ocarina of Time, and a focus on the roleplaying elements of the series. Ocarina introduced the protagonist Link’s ability to move through time by playing certain melodies on the eponymous instrument, the Ocarina of Time; he could travel between his childhood and early adult years in order to defeat certain enemies and collect various items needed to progress the storyline. Chock full of side quests and opportunities to interact with various characters, Majora’s Mask takes this premise of time travel and the magical stone flute, compresses all of that into a three day (i.e., 72-hour) cycle for a doomsday story (the moon is about to crash into the land of Termina!), and forces Link to solve the impending crisis and the numerous trials of the other characters he encounters.

Fortunately, the Ocarina of Time allows you to travel back to the first day and avoid an untimely death from a falling moon. The downside to this is that resetting time does not reset the frustrating nature of this game.

The Zelda series traditionally leans more on the side of action/adventure game, although taking control of Link and performing tasks or interactions that further the narrative and the development of Link’s character give it a slight hint of some RPG goodness. At the time of its release, Ocarina was the most successful of the games in negotiating the line between those two game genres. Nintendo took the experiment further with Majora’s Mask and opted to emphasize the roleplaying element.

To the designers’ credit, the game has a fantastic focus on the development of Link’s character; he’s searching for a lost friend (Navi, the annoying fairy from Ocarina who tries telling you to do what you’re already doing every three nanoseconds), and in so doing gets transformed into a different shape by the Skull Kid, who has absconded with the titular Majora’s Mask, an artifact housing the magic of an ancient evil spirit. So after using the Ocarina of Time to heal himself, Link goes on a series of adventures through four dungeons, and in these travels he uses magical masks to take on the forms and identities of other creatures: a forest creature called a Deku Scrub, a Goron (rock person) warrior named Darmani, and a Zora (fishfolk) rock star called Mikau.

With only four dungeons, this game focuses on the side quests, which--unfortunately--is the game’s downfall. In so doing, it becomes nearly one giant side quest (truth be told, if you play the game without acquiring any of the extra, unnecessary items, the game can be defeated in the matter of an afternoon or two). To get any value out of the game, you have to take Link through the events of the side quests, many of which cannot be performed in tandem. But to the game’s credit, it’s the first Zelda title that bears a trace of verisimilitude, in that actions generally have to be taken in a specific order, or the consequences can be catastrophic.

Even so, the constant repetition and travel through time--the mechanics of which are a bit dodgy because you keep some items while losing others, and there’s a bank where you can invest your money and never lose it (even after continuously traveling back to the first day)--becomes simultaneously one of the most intriguing and annoying aspects of the game. To get all of the items, you often have to perform the events of side quests more than once. The game, then, becomes profoundly repetitive, which--for a game that focuses on time travel and developing a complex character--and ironically not that timeless, its replay value plummeting because of frustrating mechanics, consequences, and waiting for the moon to crash into the earth.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Work of Genius

A quick post today, to let all of you know about the greatest iPod app of all time. This app, called "Manuscript," allows you to prepare and work on writing projects ranging from short stories to novels.

Think of it as the ultimate writer's helper. With this app, you can outline a project, take notes, make edits to existing documents, import/export from your Google documents, and a number of additional features.

Manuscript defies my tradition of not paying for iPod apps; at $7.99, it's a smidgen on the expensive side, as far as apps go. At that price, the only flaw in the app is that it only supports RTF (rich text format) files, so anything you import into Manuscript has to be saved as that file type. (Sorry, Microsoft, but the .doc format hasn't taken over the world yet.)

This app is certain to be a boon to any writer. Perhaps the greatest attribute, though, is what makes the iPod Touch such an excellent device: portability. Now, you can take your notes and outlines with you, help keep your desk cleared of sheets of notes pertaining to different projects, and stay organized with the help of Manuscript.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review: Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher

“Carrie Fisher is apparently a celebrity of sorts,” Carrie Fisher writes at the beginning of her stage show-turned-memoir Wishful Drinking. “I mean, she was (is) the daughter of famous parents. One an icon, the other a consort to icons.”

I usually shun the “celebrity memoir” category; most of those books are ghost-written, often in voices markedly different from the people allegedly represented in the books. This leaves the impression of, “That’s right--your favorite celebrity is in fact a thirty-five-year-old Midwestern male exhibiting signs of oncoming baldness and a farmboy monotone.”

But there’s none of that here. Instead, we encounter a conversational and sharp narrative, not afraid to attack itself and cause a few laughs (mostly at the author’s expense). Carrie Fisher’s memoir--although certainly not a gem of fine “literature”--is entertaining, witty, and absorbing. Perhaps, because Fisher, within the opening pages of Wishful Drinking, informs her readers that she’s not here to get our pity or to make us understand.

Wishful Drinking is one prolonged and cathartic joke, drawing from celebrity parents and drug/alcohol abuse and acting school tongue twisters (we owe Princess Leia’s “You’ll never get that bucket of bolts past that blockade” to her training with tongue twisters such as “If I can’t have a proper cup of coffee / In a proper copper coffee pot / I’ll have a cup of tea.”) Through comedy, Fisher guides us through the darkness and depression of life with bipolar disorder and drug abuse issues.

This is the sort of book that one ought to read aloud; since Wishful Drinking began as a stage show, Fisher maintains that direct address, that constant communication with an audience. But her humor never flags. She at once seeks to include the reader in a conversation--to give us a little bit of an idea about who Carrie Fisher was (is)--and yet she also makes herself relatable by critiquing her own fame and icon status. She comments (and retaliates against) her various incarnations in the forms of PEZ dispensers and anatomically correct (I’m referring to below the waistline here) Princess Leia figures. But she also treats the downsides of her fame with this same wit: “Oh! This’ll impress you--I'm actually in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Obviously my family is so proud. Keep in mind, though, I’m a PEZ dispenser and I’m in the Abnormal Psychology textbook. Who says you can’t have it all?”

While Fisher uses her quips like streetlamps to guide us through the dark streets of her life, one bright joke at a time, she lightly points out that (a) we are all a little bit crazy and that (b) we need to be able to laugh at our own idiosyncrasies. “Statistics,” Fisher writes, “say that a range of mental disorders affects more than one in four Americans in any given year. That means millions of people are totally batshit.”

And if anybody has the right to make that observation, it’s a woman who has had the displeasure of being leashed to a giant slug while wearing a steel bikini and who has been turned into a Mister Potato-head figure, a PEZ dispenser, and an action figurine with an “anatomically correct--though shaved--galaxy snatch.”

Carrie Fisher. Wishful Drinking. Paperback. Simon & Schuster. $13.95. 163 pp.