Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rutu Modan's The Property (2013), translated by Jessica Cohen


“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina.  You came to tell me that our son is dead.” 

This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Rutu Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property.  I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel.  It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers.  Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII.  This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances.  Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now). 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Literature Professors Write Fiction?


When I was halfway through my MA program for Literature, a PhD student in the program gave me the following sage advice: “If you’re going to be a serious student, don’t take creative writing courses.”  Partly he meant that since you’re getting a degree on literature, you should chase one rabbit at a time.  Writing a short story is time you could be writing your MA Thesis, or drafting an article, or doing something to get you into a conference or PhD program.  However, beneath this was a threat of not being taken seriously: enrolling in a creative writing course at the MA level (for a non-creative writing MA) is amateurish.  It smacks of not being quite serious, or worse, being a dilletante.  “I would never enroll in a creative writing course,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.  I went ahead and took the course, since it was taught by an author whose works I deeply enjoyed.  No regrets, either: I learned a lot from the course, finished my MA Thesis, and got into a halfway decent PhD program. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Book of White: Reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King


The Book of White: Reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

Most literary folk vaguely know the story of King Arthur: that he pulled a sword from the stone to become king of England...that the wizard, Merlin, helped him achieve power through various mystical lessons...that his wife, Guenevere, fell in love with the greatest knight in the land, Arthur’s right-hand man, Lancelot du Lac...that Arthur was seduced by his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to give birth to Mordred, who became his implacable foe...and so on.  Yet no two stories of Arthur agree on all the specifics, so whether you read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, Chretien de Troyes’ Romances, or the Lays of Marie de France, you get a very different Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot.  That’s why T.H. White’s version of the legend is so welcome, since he takes bits and pieces from each and translates them from his own perspective to fit his own philosophy.  Simply put, the four books of The Once and Future King (or five, if you count the suppressed The Book of Merlyn) are one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written, and certainly among the most original.  There’s nothing quite like it in literature, though it shares a satirical heritage with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a sense of the fantastic and absurd with Nikolai Gogol.  Those expecting a grim, fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein or Marion Zimmer Bradley will be somewhat disappointed.  However, like all books, if you approach it on its own terms, and appreciate it as a wholly unique take on the Arthurian epic, you’ll be surprised, confused, delighted, and amazed by White’s achievement. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"This Class Would Be Just Perfect Without All the Students!" (and other complaints of the novice professor)



About a week ago, an article was published on Book Riot entitled “The Joys and Sorrows of Teaching Literature,” focusing on a brief career teaching college English as a TA: http://bookriot.com/2014/08/26/joys-sorrows-teaching-literature/#comment-1568114287

Of course, the title is misleading: the article is only about the sorrows and the thesis consists largely of this: students don’t love reading the way you do, and if you want to keep loving literature you should quit teaching immediately (or better yet, don’t go into the field at all).  This young teacher was disillusioned by the incredible disinterest of her students, particularly when she tried to share her love of language and metaphor to students who simply wanted to pass a class.  This is indeed disturbing to any teacher in love with his or her subject, but of course not surprising at all: why should students made to take a required class be expected to love it the same way as the professor being paid to teach it (or in this case, the TA)?  What bothered me about the article—and I’ve read several like it—is the sense of pervasive defeat in every sentence: you can’t teach literature to students, they don’t care, the profession is full of jargon, so I’m going to retreat into a book club and simply enjoy reading again.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My First Novel is Free This Monday-Wednesday on Amazon

My first novel, The Count of the Living Death is free on Amazon this Monday-Wednesday (e-book only, of course).  It's a short, fast-paced YA fantasy that should appeal to all ages (I mean, I wrote it, and I'm 40!), so give it a try or your money back (well, it's free, so...) 

Here's the blurb: Count Leopold always wondered about the strange chest sealed with three magic locks. His father warned him never to mention the Box—nor pry into the secret chamber where it was kept. Now the Box has begun speaking to Leopold, begging him to find the key and undo the hateful locks. If he does so, it promises him to fulfill his every desire, even offering him the hand of the forbidden—and forbiddingly named— Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti. However, before unfastening the third lock he catches a glimpse of something unspeakable inside—and turns to the only man who shared his father’s secret, the legendary Conjurer-Magician, Hildigrim Blackbeard. A man who, if the stories are true, will exact a terrible price in return for his service.

You can find it here: http://www.amazon.com/Count-Living-Chronicles-Hildigrim-Blackbeard-ebook/dp/B00FQ6711Y/ref=pd_rhf_gw_s_t_1


ALSO, you can read a preview of the book at the bottom of this blog.  

Sunday, August 3, 2014

“Classical” Film Scores: Inspiring the “Wild and Wanton Herd"


In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, the two lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are listening to music on a moonlit night.  Though Jessica is uneasy about the music—and possibly Lorenzo’s faithfulness—Lorenzo proclaims the power of love through music:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing, and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music...The man that has no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils...Let no such man be trusted (V.1.). 

In Hollywood, it’s generally assumed that there are few such men—or women—in the audience.  Indeed, the “wild and wanton herd” is always ready to be manipulated by the blood and guts power of music, which is arguably the key component to movie magic.  To test this, mute a particularly action-packed or emotional scene and compare it to the original.  More than the dialogue is missing: a crucial element of the atmosphere dissipates, leaving a kind of shadow play on screen, recognizable only to those who have seen the original.  Oftentimes scores can be needlessly obtrusive or sentimental, and for this reason can get in the way of the story and the actors.  At their best, however, music accentuates the drama and makes us feel things ‘between the lines’ of a film which no amount of acting or dialogue can possibly create.  Bette Davis famously complained that Erich Korngold’s surging, Romantic scores all too often upstaged her, which can be well imagined when listening to the soundtrack to Elizabeth and Essex or Captain Blood.  So what is the proper role of a movie soundtrack: background support or lead actor in its own right? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vaughan-Williams: the Greatest Symphonist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958) isn’t exactly a footnote in the musical history books, nor is he a one-hit wonder.  Nevertheless, he is still somewhat neglected in the concert halls (in the States, anyway), which rarely play his 9 symphonies, preferring his lighter works such as The Lark Ascending or Fantasia from Greensleves (fine works though they are).  The reason for his neglect is hard to fathom.  His music is full of gorgeous, memorable melodies, yet is hardly a throwback to 19th century Romanticism, being bold, exciting, and often dissonant.  Almost every bar of Vaughan-Williams’ music bears his unique thumbprint, and you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else, though others have freely borrowed from him (including his near-namesake, John Williams, the film composer).  He wrote in almost every form imaginable, leaving masterpiece after masterpiece: a gorgeous concerto for two (!) pianos, an outsized ballet on the Book of Job, folk-like chamber works, and numerous stand-alone orchestral works, such as the monumental Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which pits a solo string quartet against a string orchestra.  Yet it is as a symphonist that Vaughan-Williams found his truest voice.  These nine works sing out with incredible power and beauty, but also a sense of deep morality.  They seem, in some respects, to represent the voice of England’s conscience during the first 5 decades of the 20th century.  From the wide-eyed, philosophic Sea Symphony (No.1) to the stark, sometimes sardonic, mystical Ninth Symphony, his works seem a call to arms; not to fighting for king and country, perhaps, but as a witness to humanity’s horror and heroism.  Like his contemporary, the Russian composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, Vaughan-Williams wrote for his generation in a voice they would understand, and that we, listening backward from the ‘future,’ can appreciate as one of the great hallmarks of orchestral literature.