Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lost on Trafalmadore

I woke up early this morning and watched my Netflix movie of the week, Slaughterhouse Five. Being a big fan of Vonnegut's book, it's something I've meant to watch for some time but just hadn't gotten around to before now. I'm not normally one of those people who will pound my foot and say it's better to just read the book; I think of a film version of a novel as very different creation.

Vonnegut's original book works because it manages a delicate balancing act between subject matters both darkly serious and darkly comic. Move throughout the novel switching back and forth between being horrified and chuckling to yourself, often on the same page. The basic plot elements are in the movie ; Billie Pilgrim jumps through various points in his life: the bombing of Dresden during WWII, raising his dog Spot, surviving a plane crash, and living out his last days as a zoo exhibit on this distant planet of Trafalmadore. But the movie tells the story by focusing on the dark elements of the story, forgetting the comedy. Sure, there are some funny moments. There's a very slapstick scene of Billie's wife tearing up the highway in her new Caddy, trying to get to the hospital after Billie survives a plane crash. But those moments are few and far between.

I don't blame the movie on an untalented director; it was done by George Roy HIll, who directed classics like The World According to Garp, The Sting, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This movie made me realize that a large part of writing is creating a unique voice. Vonnegut's book would just be a forgotten wacky sci-fi novel if it wasn't for the sly, wry ironic tone we get from Billie as the narrator. Without that tone, without that litany of "So it goes" that pops up, under-cutting every tragic event Slaughterhouse Five becomes a series of tragic anecdotes that ends up numbing you to everything.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Patron Show

For my birthday last month my dad and stepmother gave Miss L and I one ticket each for the annual patron show for the Alexandria Art League, held at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, Va. every year the Sunday before President's Day, it's the major fundraiser for the Art League. Members donate works of art---paintings, sculpture, pottery, photographs, collage, etc.---and a ticket is sold for each work. Done as a raffle, tickets are drawn out of a bin and names are called at random. When your name is called you yell out the number for the work of art you want and, assuming it wasn't already called, you get to take it home and put it up on your wall. This year 555 works of art were donated, making it a packed gallery and a packed area while people waited for their names to be called.

Miss L and I dropped by the galleries last week after the art was first mounted. Because of the tight space, they're hung old European style with 3, 4, even five paintings hung right below each other to maximize wall space. They give you a printed list . Everyone seems to have their own system for rating and keeping track of what they like. Some took photos with their digital camera, intending to make flash cards so they can sort them into their order of preference. Some used color coding schemes and others created odd systems of arcane runes only they could understand. Miss L and I opted for a straight-forward Academic-style grading system.

Things were pretty packed for the actual event this past Sunday. Virtually every usable space on the main floor was taken up with ticket-holders, and even more people were crammed into the second level, looking down from the balcony.

Looking down from the balcony

The Torpedo Factory provided chairs, and people come expecting to stay for several hours. Many treated it like a picnic, bringing coolers with food, bottles of wine, and thermoses filled with coffee or hot cocoa. The event staff set up sound-speakers and a big sign used to mark off works of art as they were chosen.

Board used to mark off selected pieces

Once the names started being called, it moved fast. Everyone focused on listening for what people chose so they could cross it off of their list. Soft groans would issue when something popular was picked. If someone didn't pay enough attention and called a number someone else had already called they would be warned by a series of boos.

Miss L actually received the first firing of boos. Her first choice was taken and the fellow ticket-holders were pretty unforgiving in doling out their verbal punishment. She was a little flustered at first, but she but recovered quickly enough to snag her second choice, a nice diptych abstract painting by C. Dale entitled Deep Freeze 1 & 2. It was actually my first choice, so while I was a touch hurt that she stole it from me I take solace in the fact that she'll let me visit it in her apartment.

Deep Freeze 1 & 2

My turn came up about a half-hour into the raffle. I won a nice watercolor semi-abstract by A. Mazor entitled In the Deep. It was pretty high on my list, so I'm really happy with what I got. Miss L compared it to Arthur Dove, which is probably pretty accurate.

Into the Deep

The comedy moment of the night came up when my stepmother's name was called; she went through about four choices that were already taken before finding one that was open. For a moment I really thought some people were going to toss her out of the building.

All in all, a great time. I've had it in my head for a long time that I'd like to collect art when I can afford it. And while this event wasn't something I could have afforded if it hadn't been gift, who knows? I'd love to go again if I have the chance. Either way, I've got a pretty good start on my little art collection.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Love, Washington Post Style

I don't normally look at the Washington Post Magazine. It's mostly a pop magazine that comes out every Sunday, covering clever stories of local interest or celebrities. I actually read this week's issue because of the cover story; in celebration of Valentine's Day this week's issue included 5 short stories about love. Each author was given a photograph and, using the photo as a jumping-off point, developed a story on the theme. None of them are high-end lit, but they are cute, sweet stories about the difficulties that come about when the ideals of love and the realities of life collide. "The Exact Distance" by Ron Carlson, "The Last Stop" by Stephen McCauley, "Pita Delicious" b ZZ Packer, "View Master" by Jill McCorkle, and "Little Russia" by Melissa Bank. You can read all five of the stories here.

Somewhat related, the Washington Post is also running a fiction contest. They are asking for the best short stories (no more than 1500 words) about love. Deadline is May 13, and all submissions should go to as a double-spaced document (no specfic format is mentioned). No mention of $, but the winning story will be published in the Valentine issue of the Washington Post Magazine next year. Not normally known for showing much support to local writers, this is a nice thing for the Post to do. If you're good at slice of life, psuedo-New Yorker relationship stories this might be a good contest for you. For full info, go here and good luck.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Holy Secret Identities!

According to Library Journal, Joe Hill, author of the praised-in-advance new horror novel Heart Shaped Box, is son of Stephen King. Now the huge press packet I got along with my advance copy makes so much more sense. Not that it's not's a pretty tense page-turner of a novel with a great central character and a quirky twist on the worn out genre of ghost stories. But a first novel getting so much attention, including film rights being purchased prior to the book coming out, is really rare. I can understand why Hill (King, whatever) would want to use a pen name, although now that it's out, will it matter?


Cleaning House

Some of these links are a little old, but so be it. If you haven't seen them before you won't know any better.

To celebrate Valentine's Day, Count Gore is running the 1971 horror "classic" Lady Frankenstein. You'll need a Real Player to watch.

Wil Weaton writes about Shatner's new idea to record himself reading the Book of Exodus.

Sandra Beasley and her article on the Burlesque Poetry Hour, a weekly reading series here in the DC area.

Pitt offers up a new lit journal, The Steel City Review. Looks pretty good. Thanks to Matt Briggs for the original post.

Jeff's grandfather offers up some wise Valentine's Day advice at AndIAmNotLyingForReal.

An excellent review on Carole Maso by writer Ben Downing.

Feminist SF-The Blog has a good little essay on the power of opening paragraphs.

Interesting article at the UK Independent predicting that Horror will be the hot genre for 2007. One of the key books they mention is Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, which I reviewed here. When horror was at its height, we had the two pillars Stephen King and Clive Barker churning out pretty good work a few years in a row and supplement by decent movie versions of their work. Dunno if it's coming, but I hope if it is the hot genre again that it at least pulls from some writers who are as unique and fresh as they were twenty years ago.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Review: A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
By Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone is the gripping first book by child rights advocate Ishmael Beah; it retells his experiences as a boy growing up in Sierra Leone in the 1990's, during one of the most brutal and violent civil wars in recent history. Beah, a boy as equally thrilled by causing mischief as he is by memorizing passages from Shakespeare and dance moves from hip hop videos, is a typical precocious twelve year old. But rebel forces destroy his childhood innocence when they hit his village, driving Beah to leave his home and travel the arid deserts and jungles of Africa. After several months of struggle the national army recruits Beah; he's made a full soldier and his new training teaches him to shoot an AK-47 and hate everyone who comes up against them.

This first two thirds of the memoir are frightening, watching how easy it is for a normal boy to transform into someone as addicted to killing as he is to the cocaine the army makes readily available. Peering so unflinchingly at the bloody horrors of warfare and what it does to children echoes many of the thoughts of Elie Wiesel in his classic Night, the core difference being that Beah was a participant as well as a victim. Some of the more disturbing moments are not shooting or slitting people's throats, but them going back to watch movies like Rambo afterwards and joking about how many they could kill if they only had an RPG.

But there is an abrupt change a few years later when agents from the United Nations pull him out of the army and places him in a rehabilitation center. Anger and hate slowly fade away and we see the first glimmers of Beah's work as an advocate. My only real criticism of Beah's book is that I wish it spent more time exploring how he managed to escape his addiction to violence. Much of his recovery centers around a nurse who takes an interest in him and encourages him by sharing music and books. While I'm sure that's certainly part of the story, I came away feeling like we weren't being told everything. But considering Beah's target audience is mostly teens affected by violence, the level of depth is probably appropriate. Told in a conversational, accessible style this powerful record of the violence of war ends as a beacon to all teens experiencing violence around them by showing them that there are ways to survive other than adding to the violence.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson was a pretty busy guy. Aside from being an essayist, critic, scholar and all around smarty pants, Johnson created the first full dictionary of the English language. It was quite a project, made up of some 42,000 words with definitions and sample sentences to show usage. Although he had 6 clerical assistants working under him, it was primarily Johnson's own hard work that pulled it all together. It set the standard for what became the Oxford English Dictionary and influenced how Noah Webster would create his own dictionary for us over here in the states.

One of my favorite definitions used in Johnson's dictionary is this:

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

I like it not because it's accurate, well written or funny (it's all of these), but so blatantly biased. Equating Scotsmen to horses sets them up to be little better than animals. At the time Johnson was living the Scots----my proud ancestors----were not exactly endearing themselves to the English. A few decades prior to our own revolution here in the colonies the Scots were inciting revolt of their own, something remembered today as the Jacobite Uprisings. They were a bit miffed when James the IV of Scotland and England was removed from the throne and replaced by his daughter Mary II and her husband, the Dutch-born William of Orange. It was a time marked by protests, violent uprisings and hurt feelings on both sides----some people still have hurt feelings over the whole fiasco.

For a long time Englishman told Scottish jokes the way Polish jokes are told here in the U.S., so it's easy to excuse Johnson for his silly slip into provencial crassness. It's a funny example of how language can be shaped and twisted to change the way we think. It's a small word, oats. But in defining it the way he did Johnson left a marker for how he and his fellow Englishman felt about the people just to the North.

Nowadays the various dictionaries strive to be as clinical, scientific and unbiased as possible in their defintions. But I do wonder what words will stand out in 100 years as cultural markers for how we think and feel about each other today.