Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "To a Mouse," by Robert Burns

First of all, sorry for the lack of a Monday update; I tried to post something while I was visiting Rutgers-Newark, but apparently you can only connect to the Internet there with a student ID and a password. (No guest wifi? Balderdash!)

Today's poem is by Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland. During his 37 years, he was a prolific poet and songwriter, and he also led an interesting life outside of that. I first learned of Burns in December 2008 when I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, the UNESCO World City of Literature. Burns, especially in America, gets overlooked, but his poetry is a brand of heartfelt romanticism that presages that of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In many ways, Burns was a more sincere romanticist than Wordsworth because, instead of just praising and lauding the working classes, Burns actually wrote in their dialect and worked that commonplace language into elegant poetic forms.

I've also selected this particular poem because it's the origin of a common cliché, which you'll notice as soon as you get to that stanza. Try imagining this read in a Scottish brogue; it helps immensely.

To a Mouse
On turning her up in her Nest with the Plough. November 1785.

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae haesty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee
Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin' wi the lave,
An' never miss't!

Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin',
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin' fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell--
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An cranreuch cauld!

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me;
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Film Review: The Visitor, starring Richard Jenkins

Professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) has become a visitor in his own home and all of its aspects--the apartment he used to share in New York City with his late wife, his life, and his own country.

An instructor at Connecticut College, Walter has a diminished course load--teaching only one class--to focus on finishing a book, which he hasn’t worked on seriously since the death of his wife, a classical pianist. Walter’s existence lurches onward, passively and without passion.

With a character as detached and emotionless as Walter, The Visitor struggles to grab attention in the first quarter of an hour, but a series of sequences (ones that show Walter getting annoyed with a piano instructor, becoming irritated with a student turning in a paper late [although Walter is yet to distribute the syllabus for his class], and eating alone in the campus dining hall) reveals that something’s a bit off kilter with this stoic man.

His life is unoccupied by anything of value--friends, colleagues, or meaningful work.

The chair of his department approaches Walter to present a paper that he co-authored at a conference in NYC because the other author has been put on bed rest until she delivers her child. Peeved, Walter embarks to the city, which precipitates the rest of the film, as he discovers Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) living in his old apartment.

From here, The Visitor chronicles the rapid growth of Walter’s friendship with Tarek and Zainab, and contrasting shots in the beginning and end of the film--most notably Walter’s observation of a vase on the table--hint at the changes in Tarek’s and Zainab’s situation and Walter’s dreary life.

But the film is a parable, as well, of how paranoia and fear destroy the lives of innocents, and the hustle and bustle of our daily life--work, errands, travel, friendships--is a thin veil, easily yanked away even by the smallest of random happenstances. And yet, those of us who, by an accident of birth, have American citizenship remain unaware of the machinations of our country, of the great unfairness that’s structured into our political system. A detention center in NYC--which looks like little more than a whitewashed cinderblock gym--builds anxiety throughout The Visitor: The center is nondescript to naturalized Americans, terrifying to immigrants, and--to those who work in the building--nothing but a job, with detainees being migrated from one chamber to another through a chain of electric, sliding doors.

It is in encountering the costs of being emotionless, the price of passivity, that Walter unites with Tarek and Zainab; he alters his life when sudden challenges befall the young couple. The circumstances instill in Walter a vivacity that he has not experienced for years, and The Visitor leaves the viewer with an admonition, that we should not be idle in our own lives and that--regardless of laws and governments and borders--every innocent, good person deserves a life dedicated to pursuing happiness.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Speak!" by William Wordsworth

Why art thou silent! Is thy love a plant
Of such weak fibre that the treacherous air
Of absence withers what was once so fair?
Is there no debt to pay, no boon to grant?
Yet have my thoughts for thee been vigilant--
Bound to thy service with unceasing care,
The mind's least generous wish a mendicant
For naught but what thy happiness could spare.
Speak -- though this soft warm heart, once free to hold
A thousand tender pleasures, thine and mine,
Be left more desolate, more dreary cold
Than a forsaken bird's-nest fill'd with snow
'Mid its own bush of leafless eglantine--
Speak, that my torturing doubts their end may know.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Some Thoughts on a Compassionate Life

Ten o’clock on Monday is still a Monday update. ☺

So this one’s a bit behind schedule, since I’ve been following a few things in the news and been a bit all over the place. But things are settling down.

Following David Foster Wallace’s suicide in September of 2008, his publisher (Little, Brown & Co.) announced that they were publishing in book form David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005 under the title of This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. It was the only such address that Wallace would ever give.

But what Wallace reminds us of in this speech is that everything that you are at the absolute center of everything that has ever happened in your life. And so we’re always stuck at the middle of our own experiences. But he stresses that life is about more than meeting our own simple needs. He corrects misconceptions about how a liberal arts education “teaching you how to think” is more than simply a platitude; Wallace says, “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

So in short, I’ve been thinking a lot about the health care debacle, since I--like millions of other Americans--am without health insurance. Whereas I don’t think it goes far enough--it's more health insurance reform than it is health care (and that’s a necessary first step, I feel)--I still feel that the idea behind the whole push was to get outside of narrow, individualist thinking. That government can make a conscious choice from the experiences of people to provide, to pay attention.

Both sides of the debate have used a bit of fop logic and a lot of catch phrases (don’t get me started on those), but what’s important here is moving beyond this shallow, self-interested, self-promoting nature of business as usual. It’s about actually looking at the circumstances and observing the world beyond one’s self. “Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life,” Wallace cautions, “you will be totally hosed.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Film Review: Two for the Road, Starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney

Below is the first of three film reviews based on last week’s blog post asking for nominations of must-see films! I’ll be doing these for the next two Fridays, as well. Films are being reviewed in a very strategic method—in the order the films were stacked when I opened the box from Barnes & Noble.

Two for the Road (1966):
Albert Finney (Mark Wallace) and Audrey Hepburn (Joanna Wallace) provide inspired performances in a film that reveals the complicated core of a marriage underneath a façade of travel and chance. Mark and Joanna--united by a chance encounter--seemingly hitchhike through their married life, and the movie deftly travels between events in their relationship in a manner that mirrors comedy against drama, the bliss of a starting relationship with the tribulations of a marriage stalling and circling, a marriage held in a holding pattern.

Although the film starts with a 1960s title sequence with Technicolor road signs and that was apparently funded by the font Helvetica, the narrative moves beyond the mere directing of road signs and tours us deep into the psyches of the characters as Mark and Joanna meet, fall in love, travel through Europe with another couple, have a child, and spend time together until they learn what their marriage truly means to them, as a couple.

Their ventures through their relationship twine together as they visit--in later years--the locations and the random chances that brought them together; they cruise French country sides and remember their previous travels there in an MG automobile that caught fire, but they also test the foundation of their marriage against infidelity as Mark begins doing architectural design for a man named Maurice, events that return Mark’s and Joanna’s thoughts to an enchanted time they spent at the Mediterranean.

But the most touching moment in the film--the memory of which saves their marriage at a pivotal point in the film--occurs when Mark and Joanna, in the midst of one of their characteristic spats, dine together in utter silence; Joanna laments, “What kind of people sit together in a restaurant in complete silence?,” to which Mark replies, “Married people.” But this emphasizes the role of silence, of the unsaid things in this film. These staunch silences are like those moments when, guided by a GPS in an automobile, the driver is between exits and wondering what’s beyond the highway when the voice providing directions remains mute.

It’s that Mark and Joanna make this journey together, which reveals their attachment and dedication to each other. And the small ways in which they continue to know each other--such as Joanna’s exploitation of Mark’s continuing to forget the whereabouts of his passport--that demonstrate that tie. I would recommend anything starring the incomparable Audrey Hepburn, and this elegant film lets the viewer, as a hitchhiker in the marriage of Mark and Joanna Wallace, embark on an intimate adventure into the complicated travels of two lovers on the traffic circle-turnarounds of love.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Hysteria," by T.S. Eliot

"Hysteria," by T.S. Eliot, from Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved
in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth
were only accidental stars with a talent for
squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled
at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the
dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of
unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling
hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white
checked cloth over the rusty green iron table,
saying: 'If the lady and gentleman wish to take
their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman
wish to take their tea in the garden...' I decided
that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped,
some of the fragments of the afternoon might be
collected, and I concentrated my attention with
careful subtlety to this end.

Monday, March 15, 2010

resuming a regular living, this wednesday

I read a number of web comics, and I'll admit to getting infuriated when the artists provide excuses that are rather lame as to why they haven't done a regularly scheduled post. "Hello, my name is Lamer T. Lemur, and I just didn't feel like doing it."

This is not that post.

Over the past 72 hours, I decided--because I'm a genius--to tear through a revision of a 150 page novel ms. Yes, a very short novel. But a lot of work. So we'll back with Wednesday poetry. The site masthead shall be altered accordingly, or I'll have to sack a few codemonkeys and harangue them into doing the work for me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Film Selections, and Future Changes to Penguin in the Machine

I received three replies--two as comments and one via Facebook--to Monday's post. Since I'm awful at decisions, I've decided to pick one from each of my recommenders. The selected films are:

  • The Visitor, because I have a thing for underdogs (that includes the cartoon superhero Underdog but not the dreadful live-action flick) and the underappreciated.
  • Star Trek (2009), because I'm a geek and also because I should really take the initiative to see a movie that was made in the past two years that's not The Dark Knight or Twilight (the last film I saw in theatres, back in November 2008).
  • Two for the Road, and the explanation for this one comes in two words: AUDREY HEPBURN.
But thank you all for your kind recommendations! I'll be acquiring the films sometime in the next few days, and then the next three Fridays will be film reviews here on The Penguin in the Machine!

I am going to hold onto all of the other recommendations, though, because it'll give me more things to look for in the future.

Next week, I'm going to start a new feature on this blog; on Wednesdays, I'll begin posting poetry, maybe some by me, maybe some by real poets (old stuff out of copyright, but good stuff, since I don't want anybody's estate suing the pants off of me. Though, I could post some bad poems and make fun of them. That could be fun, too.) I feel that poetry is under-appreciated because high schoolers are stuck reading John Donne's tense, sexually-repressed, subliminally violent poetry because it scans well, and this produces the idea that poetry is inaccessible. But it doesn't have to be, and it can still be incredibly emotionally compelling.

Returning on Monday, after I do some more marathon revisions!

Monday, March 8, 2010

And the Oscar goes to...

If I were a socially responsible blogger, I'd be ranting and raving about the Oscars in this post, telling all of you what you've either already watched or read elsewhere.

Or, I would be doing what so many other bloggers do, in that I'd be finding the nearest wifi hotspot and immediately whining about how I disagree with why Film A won Award Zed.

The truth of the matter--and I actually feel a bit ashamed about this--is that I don't watch nearly enough movies. I read three or four books a week--and believe me, that's not about to change--but there are some people who watch maybe twice that many movies in a week and still lead über-productive lives.

(I watch lots of British television, though...does that count for at least some cultural indoctrination?)

The Oscars generate a lot of hype because movies have all that glitz and glamour. Not that that's a bad thing--often, critics of film and visual media forget that there's an artistic vision behind the camera. Remember: Just because you aren't reading every word of it--just because images and details are arranged and given to you on some kind of canvas (i.e., actual canvas, or developed film, or the silver screen, or your home television)--doesn't mean that there isn't some kind of artistic vision to it.

Film is like fiction--another way of telling and imagining stories. And as with fiction, films can be either fun fluff or beautiful, artistic, deliberate.

So here's what I want you to do: Hit that comment button and tell me two things: A, or 1, the title of the film, and 2, by which I also mean b, why you think it's an excellent film and why I should watch it. You don't need a Blogger or a Goggle account to leave a comment; all you need is the predilection to actually type a response.

From your responses (of which there will hopefully be many), I'll pick one of these films and announce my choice, probably on Thursday or Friday. I'll find some way of getting it over the weekend, will watch it, and then write a review.

And I'll consider the others, too, for my future edification!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Back on Monday

Dear all,

I'm hard at work on some revisions/rewriting on several projects--a novella, a novel, and a few short stories (augh! why do I do these all at once?!?)--so the Penguin in the Machine will wind up again for next week. In the meantime, I give you some quality, literary entertainment, as the Monty Python Troupe attempts to read Sir Walter Scott's novel Redgauntlet.

Jeremy Toogood reads Redgauntlet for "A Book at Bedtime."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

I've ordered a copy of this book so that I could read it and write a review. The author is Seth Grahame-Smith, bestselling author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters. So coming soon to a Penguin in the Machine near you, a review of Abraham Lincoln's exploits in slaying vampires and avenging their wrongs against mankind--particularly the death of his mother at the hands (fangs?) of vampires.

As with Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter has a trailer, which you can watch on YouTube. There's also a brief sneak-peek mocumentary, which you can also watch on YouTube.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Patriotism, Hockey, and Canuckland Stereotypes?

Wow...this one's really delayed, apologies for that, but my mind's been a half dozen different places today. So now for something completely different!

Hockey. (Go Penguins. Antarctic fowl should win every Stanley Cup.)

Does it make me a bit of a traitor that I was hoping the Canadians would win the ice hockey finals? (C'mon, on the men's team, they had Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins! And how could I cheer against penguins?)

Or does it just make me unpatriotic? What does it mean to be patriotic?

These are questions intimately tied to the Olympics; basically, we want to prove we're better than everybody, smash the competition, and let out political tensions and anger in a global stadium that doesn't result in violent bloodshed. (Wait, and hockey is an Olympic sport?) So it's about national pride: Consider Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who pushed for Russian Olympic officials to resign after Russia had a disappointing finish in the medals race. So there's Russia--we have to beat everybody--or there's the way that Kate Beaton pumped up Canada in one of her recent sketches--wowee, we actually managed to beat the Americans! (Note, you have to scroll down through a few about Queen Victoria and Top Gun, first.)

(Actually, look at Kate Beaton's most recent comic, as well: Canadian Stereotype Comics.)

I've always had a difficult time getting into the Olympics, precisely because I'm not very patriotic. America may be a great country to live in, but I find obeisance to a certain ideological mindset to be incredibly limiting, incredibly diminishing. Also, it's an incredibly polarizing force. Often, patriotism today doesn't lead to the extremes it does in Yukio Mishima's fantastic (yet gory and shudder-inducing) short story "Patriotism," in which a Japanese Lieutenant and his wife commit seppuku because of the lieutenant's belief in a particular cause.

But the attitude toward the Olympics this year in Canada caused a stir; Canadians--as Kate Beaton points out humourously--are often known for being a passive, inviting people, and yet their entire Olympic campaign was to win big on home soil. And this was contentious because the Canadian public doesn't much care for arrogance and also has had enough problems with ambitious athletes falling short of their intended goals (kayakers who claim to be able to win the gold and then finish next-to-last will remain nameless).

So the point here: I feel that patriotism is one of those little myths, and that nobody's better than anybody else. If one takes the Christian perspective of "God bless America," then...why just America? Why not everybody else in the world? Okay, that's a little tautological, but you get the point--the Olympics ought to be, first and foremost, good fun. But that's not going to prevent them from causing political problems and tensions--both home and abroad, the way that Medvedev's desire to sack officials and Canada's PR nightmare both indicate.

And final note on the Olympics: I myself am quite put out that the Jamaicans didn't have a qualifying bobsled team this year.

Cool runnings!