13 November 2011


So, lots of stuff has been listened to and watched lately. Here are some notes on the various topics.


Case Studies, The World is Just a Shape to Fill the Night
If every night
were so dark as this man's songs
Morning ne'er would come.

Mondkopf, Doom Rising
Glowing techno like
dark-forest video games --
this level, you die.

Cold War Kids, Robbers and Cowards
Cold War Kids lost track
of the summertime front porch
that made them unique.

Elliott Smith, From the Basement on the Hill
Worryingly close
to my headspace; emotions
too strong for haiku.


X-Men: First Class
Gets better with time:
First viewing was appalling;
later, fangirling.

The Last King of Scotland
Beautiful, subtle,
Technically delightful --
but oh, the horror!

Hamlet (David Tennant version)
Security cam
Conceit grows less annoying;
doesn't hide quality.


You know, I was going to do a haiku about Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I just have to say this: I don't know how he did it. He put an obvious author avatar in the middle of the plot, had a waifish hacker fall in love with him, and went on plenty of rants that related only tangentially to the plot...

And it didn't suck. It was actually pretty great. Not the finest literature known to man, but it was pretty good, especially considering all the factors mentioned above. How did he do it? I must know this. How did this all work? I can't figure it out.

Also, I finished reading Emil Cioran's Precis de Decomposition, but that is another (ridiculously depressing) story, and shall be told another time.

Probably this post will be followed by a lengthy paean on the above-mentioned Elliott Smith album (which is rapidly becoming one of my favorites), or maybe one on the also above-mentioned Cioran piece. Or both! It can be a depression megapost!

I think I'll just off myself and save the blogosphere the trouble.

20 October 2011

The Poet Inside Me

Since I'm sure many of us have seen Shakespeare in Love and, equally, since many of us are writers, I think I can count on most people getting the joke when I saw, "Ooh, great title!"

This happens on a regular basis, especially in my current home-away-from-home -- which is to say, the humanities library of a large-ish state university. I mean really, who can resist The Russian Novel in English Literature? (Well, okay...) But some of them really are too good to pass up. Look at the spine of what you're reading right now, and tell me that title didn't just call to you from the shelf, assuming you're not reading something you were compelled to by some, for example, educational institution.

Thus did I discover James Thomson, crouching, as it were, against the wall of said home-away-from-home. As I was making my way back towards the stairs, I was stopped and, Joseph Fiennes-like, murmured, "Oh, good title!"

And how could I have done anything else, since the title was The City of Dreadful Night? I mean, it sounds like a Moreau painting, a Will Christopher Baer fantasy -- some weird, forgotten thing from the fag end of the Roman Empire, even. The City of Dreadful Night! Tell me you're reading that and not lusting after it. Tell me, if you want -- I won't believe you.

Of course I took it home.

And wow.


James Thomson may be someone you think is someone else. Just to straighten things out, he is neither Jim Thompson, nor Francis Thomson. He's mostly forgotten now, it seems, though there is a rather nice page dedicated to him here.

But for a while there, Thomson was the going thing. Some of his contemporaries, still reeling from Swinburne, even dubbed him "the poet laureate of pessimism." And seriously, check this out:

Some say that phantoms haunt those shadowy streets,  
And mingle freely there with sparse mankind;
And tell of ancient woes and black defeats,
And murmur mysteries in the grave enshrined:
But others think them visions of illusion,
Or even men gone far in self-confusion;
No man there being wholly sane in mind.

This is pulled pretty much at random from the title piece (from Canto VII, to be more precise), and it pretty representative of the mood in which Thomson seems permanently to dwell. And the poem is more than seventy pages long, in the edition I lucked into. It's bleak, bleak, bleak stuff, and it's difficult to read for very long without becoming a little too sympathetic with Thomson's mindset. 

It's also so far over the top it can't even see the bottom, which brings us to the central question here:  If the stuff our poems are made of is as melodramatic as all this, what really separates Thomson from, say, this kind of internet abomination (read at your own risk)? How is Thomson's imagery, which is, to all intents and purposes, utterly indistinguishable from our beloved internet-bred goffik lolicon Hot-Topic shopping xXxwrist_slashy_luvvrxXx (i.e. some fourteen-year-old with lots of makeup and too much money to spend on clothes and/or Tara Gilesbie)? How are the dark and grimy scrapings from Thomson's soul different from some emo kid with a livejournal? (And here I tread dangerous waters -- good thing I'm not a kid, per se, and rocking Blogger with my angst.) 

The difference is, I think, this:  Thomson means it

That's right, all that business about everyone being crazy and the other stuff in the poem with crazy preachers, giant statues of Melancholy and landscapes worthy of Fernand Knopff's creepy friends; all those other poems about the three ladies of death and Thomson's dead girlfriend and all the death, blood, sadness, sorrow, dead girls in white dress et cetera ad nauseum...

He means it. 

How's that to put some fear in your Halloween? 

Incidentally, Thomson's reputation has not held up too well. One critic in the '60s (I believe the name was Byron) went so far as to say that Thomson "will never be one of the great poets," nor even one of the second-stringers, "but he will always have his audience." And this is a guy who made a career studying the poor man. 

This year, I suggest you do something really frightening for Halloween. 

I suggest you read James Thomson. 

It gets no darker in the human mind than this. 

17 October 2011


Or rather, one dragon, which appears in my newly-published short story, "Her Ladyship, the Dragon." It can be read in Lorelei Signal, and features a really great illustration by Ms. Holly Eddy. Enjoy!

Coming soon:  Notes on James Thomson and probably some review-ku of the zillions of movies I have been watching lately.

09 September 2011

Moral Standards Have to Go, Too.

...By which I mean that sometimes, the fear of them produces crap.

I've got some ire here, and let me tell you why:  Last night I watched Night of the Hunter, the pretty seminal Robert Mitchum/Shelley Winters picture. The story -- Robert Mitchum's preacherman Harry Powell gets out of prison and attempts to discover the location of his cellmate's stolen loot from said cellmater's kids -- is pretty well-known, so I'm going to leave it at what's between those em-dashes. And before I start to rant, let me say that the acting was pretty great, and the cinematography was downright haunting. The dream-like landscape, which always seems to terminate in a claustrophobia-inducing high horizons, and long shots of cut-away sets are simply to die for.

But come on, writers! What is this?

Because with all this great material, the movie ends up being... really, really annoying. The first 45 minutes are genius:  Mitchum is terrifying and strangely seductive, and the weirdly sacerdotal nature of the shot composition makes this even more disturbing. Billy Chapin's performance as John Harper, the only person who knows where his father's ill-gotten gains are hidden, is truly surprising in its emotional depth, and Shelley Winters is, as usual, sexually frustrated and crazy (just how we like her!). Preacher Powell's ability to waltz in and charm the hell out of pretty much anyone is convincing and creepy, and the way the entire town is enchanted with him is quite subtly horrifying.

So, writers of this film, I ask you:  What the hell?

Because the second 45 minutes makes absolutely no sense. The kids escape on a boat, are taken in by a crazy woman (Lillian Gish) who retells Bible stories badly and thrashes the children in her care at the drop of a hat (though, in fairness, she ends up being pretty badass). Mitchum somehow shows up in town, and, in a scene that goes on forever and vacillates wildly between awesome and completely nonsensical, is trapped in the barn by the woman with whom the children have taken shelter. When the State Troopers show up, John -- in a very convincing and quite heartwrenching scene -- snaps and begins to cry for the first time in the film. There follows a nonsensical court case... and then a bizarrely cute Christmas scene. Basically, the back half of the movie, while still containing good characters, pretty good writing and gorgeously surreal sets and setpieces, collapses on itself. (Also, Sally Jane Bruce, as John's younger sister, is completely wooden and seriously takes away from some of the best scenes throughout the movie. Especially in contrast with Billy Chapin's mature and starkly realistic performance, her glassy cuteness is either creepier than creepy or just the weakest non-writing-related part of the film.)

How does this happen? Well, in my opinion -- and here comes a completely unsourced rant characteristic of the blogosphere -- the moral strictures of the time prevent the film's aesthetic and narrative demands from being followed to their logical conclusions. The aesthetic established at the film's beginning demands a horrific end for either Mitchum or the children; the narrative, up until the children climb into the boat, would seem to demand the same. The scenes of the children fleeing across that (really, really striking and completely unreal) landscape, while effective on their own, are at odds with the more detailed settings of the town the children came from and the place they end up, and could have come from a completely different movie. The infuriating and anodyne ending for Mitchum's character leaves the viewer frustrated, as does the lack of resolution for Billy Chapin's character, post-meltdown. The last time we saw him before the Christmas scene, he wouldn't speak for love or money, and even in the Christmas morning scene, we have absolutely no reason to hope that he will have a happier life. His random, smiling exit from Lillian Gish's kitchen strikes one of the (many) jarring notes at the end of the film -- but it had to happen that way, because the "morals" of the time prevent the kind of grievous horror we need -- not want, not desire, by which we are not titillated but the presence of which is an aesthetic imperative -- at the end of a film with such a richly established aesthetic. If you're telling a fairytale, someone has to die. That's just how they work. And not only does someone have to die, whoever it is (and Shelley Winters, like Red Riding Hood's grandma, doesn't count) has to die horribly and right there. Hot irons on the feet. Thrown to the dogs. Hung in front of us. Whatever. It's got to happen.

Urgh. A frustrating, frustrating film viewing experience. Ah well.


In an entirely unrelated note, a very, very brief piece of mine is now posted (under my real name -- horrors!) at James Maxey's blog, The Prophet and the Dragon. Also, in April next year, one of my short stories will be appearing in Lacuna, Megan Arkenberg's historical fiction 'zine. Go check them out!

02 September 2011

The Institute.

So, the other day I finished Jakob Von Gunten by the magnificent Robert Walser. It was quite a strange little book -- but then again, since the Brothers Quay did a movie of it, I suppose that could be easily guessed.

I had intended to read this book long before I actually got around to it -- I've been stalking it, after a fashion, since I was fifteen, but have always been short of money or memory and have been unable to purchase a copy of my own. But perhaps that's fitting. It seems like it might be, though it's often hard to tell.

Anyway, the book followed the titular Jakob, who arrives at a school for servants. According to the introduction of the edition I read, this is something Walser himself got up to at one point, even going so far as to find employment as a butler for a short time. However, the school is less a school than a holding place -- the lessons are short, the teachers are dead or sleeping (so saith narrator) and most of the boys' time is spent lying around and waiting, though for what, we don't know. The school is run by the Benjamenta siblings, whose first names are never given. Fraulein Benjamenta functions as the "instructress," guiding the boys through the one textbook, entitled "How Should a Boy Behave?" She is a nervous, fluttering creature, whose mental instability and ill health become more pronounced as the novel progresses. Her brother, on the other hand, is a passionate creature, removed from the day-to-day functions of the school, yet very interested in the prospects of the main character.

In short, nothing much happens and no one goes anywhere.

And yet, as a novel, it's completely successful. Walser's often digressive style is here perfectly appropriate, as the longer form allows him to indulge his digressions for a little longer than his short stories would typically permit. The translation has also captured the man's odd style, which seems to be entirely composed of ejaculatory sentence fragments, stitched together with commas and subjects. The strangely breathless narration gives the wonderful impression of a person who has just climbed a long flight of stairs and great speed, and now can't remember what it was he was going upstairs to get. It's quite a feat, on the parts of both Walser and his translator, that this is not annoying.

In short, the book is a strange creature, but serves as kind of a distillation of the best qualities of Walser's short fiction, without any of its problems. I highly recommend dear Jakob, and I hope that he will find a place in your service.

31 August 2011

Camping but Not.

I have moved back to the US. I am now resident in Blueville, KS (not to pretend to be political for ten seconds or anything), attending one of the state universities to attain my undergraduate in Classical Languages. I am learning to read ancient Greek and Latin, and living in an apartment that looks more like the sight of a secret service stakeout than the swinging bachelorette pad it may one day be. But hey. Beata sum.

However, I am much more excited about my virtually-unlimited access to the university's libraries, which are legion. I mostly hang out in the humanities one (since it's right next to the building where all my classes are -- literally, all of them), and am, in fact, typing this from there. I have already gnawed my way through one book of the many thousands that surround me. I chose A Partisan's Daughter by Louis de Bernieres as my first from here, and I am, I must admit, well pleased.

Well, okay, not entirely.

A Partisan's Daughter tells the story of Chris, an unhappily married travelling salesman, specializing in medical equipment, and Roza, the daughter of a Yugoslavian partisan (and former prostitute). The two meet when Chris, in a fit of dissatisfaction, depression and loneliness, tries to pick Roza up as a prostitute -- which job she no longer does. However, the two become friends, of a kind. Chris is erotically obsessed with Roza, but does little to pursue her, and merely passes long afternoons in her squalid basement flat, listening to her tel her life story. Roza, who longs for love and attention in the wake of a past that went from odd at best to downright traumatic at worst, encourages him. Do I need to add that it has a sad ending? Well, there you are.

All right, so it is the kind of book Belle and Sebastian would write a song about. But that's not actually a problem. What is an issue, however, is de Bernieres' style and the way it intersects (often uncomfortably) with his subject matter. While I am by no means an expert on de Bernieres' output, I feel reasonably confident in saying that his tone becomes just a little too titillated when describing Roza's past -- which contains some very intense passages. It is as if de Bernieres is, himself, very uncomfortable with his subject matter, and while this works for Chris, when the narration is taken over by Roza, the tone is simply jarring. The narrator is, himself, attempting to feel the thrill that Roza feels as she tells Chris her stories of bad sex and appalling violence, and it is simply unbecoming.

More significantly than issues of style, however, is the issue of subject. What is A Partisan's Daughter about? I can't honestly say that I know, beyond the potted description I gave above. It lacks depth, somehow -- or rather, its depth is obscured and its base meaning cannot be adequately judged. This is very frustrating, since it seems as if de Bernieres is saying something -- but the reader is largely left out of what it might be.

However, I did enjoy the experience of reading the novel, and I'd certainly read more of de Bernieres' books. His style, although not as well suited to the subject matter as it might have been, has a certain pleasing effervescence, and that alone would be worth further reading.

Coming soon:  Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser (with which I am already nearly finished). Also, I have joined a rugby club. Fun times are being had by me.

07 August 2011

What's Goin' On.

So, I spent last weekend in London. It was awesome, and I took notes. They will be made available as soon as they are finished and edited. I also took pictures; I'll figure out some way to show those to people.

Yesterday, I went to Bordeaux with my family. It was a short trip (<4 hours, which is less time than it took to drive one way), but well worth it. It's an awesome city, and looks like it was made up by someone like Italo Calvino. Also, did you know that you can now officially order Bull Spec Issue 6, which features my poem, "Spinning the Seabed Dry"? Well, you can. And in this instance, the mere ability to do a thing means that you definitely should. So go on -- give those charming people from Durham, NC some love.

And now -- reviewku!

A Feast for Crows -- George R.R. Martin
Tyrion's absence
Makes me sad, but 'shipping Jaime
And Brienne is fun.

Jane Eyre (2010)
Beautiful landscapes
And thoughtful restructuring
Render Jane afresh.

Super 8 (2011)
Kids on bikes save world;
Families function or don't.
Also, aliens.

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! -- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Cave eschews mad poesy
For '50s gothic stylings;
Gives crow-black awesome.

So, all said and done, way too much fun has been had by me.

Also, posting here may be (more) erratic (i.e. less existent than usual) over the next few weeks, because I'm heading back to the 'states to go to university again. Classical languages are fun. (They are, I swear!) Bear it in mind, and forgive me, for I am a bad blogger.

23 July 2011


So, in the present, my poem "Spinning the Seabed Dry" is featured on page 61 of the most recent issue of Bull Spec magazine and you should click on this link right now (i.e. in the present) and order yourself a copy.

In the future, a short story of mine (which is based on the badass myth of Margaret of Bamburgh) will be featured in the October issue of the Lorelei Signal. However, while you're waiting for my work to be there, you should check out the excellent short story "Norn" by Jeremiah Job Levine, which features knitting and other cool stuff, as well as the other great stories featured in that fine publication.

In other news:  (Future) I will be going to London next week; (present) I am reading A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin, and aching with desire for A Dance With Dragons, upon which I have not yet laid my greasy paws; (past) I have recently completed an outline for a prose reworking of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which would feature giant mecha, and some general steampunkery; (present) I am making a corset -- pics to follow.

Otherwise, not much happening. Bonne nuit!

20 July 2011

More Review-ku (and some news).

This must be one of the silliest things I've ever gotten up to, but I've been reading and listening to and watching a lot of stuff lately, so it should be fun.

The Women (2008)
Silliness, Eva
Mendes, beaches cannot replace
Wit and honesty.

Hold Your Color -- Pendulum
Mario music?
Perhaps -- fond memory of
Moonish night ensues.

Black Death (2010)
Sean Bean is always
The same character. Message?
Everyone/thing sucks.

Inkheart (2008)
Italian hills
Were ne'er so bleak. Dustfinger
Makes my life better.

Heroes (Seasons 1-2)
Loads of characters
With tight plots and handsome men?

XO / Either/Or -- Elliott Smith
Sad songs, happy tunes:
Dichotomy is greatness.
Birdlike, my soul lifts.

Did I mention that during a recent stage (kind of a cross between a summer camp and, in the case of the school where I work, an intensive language course) I taught haiku to little French boys? We had fun.

Also, you should definitely be reading The Lorelei Signal. Not only will they be publishing one of my stories(!!!), they already have great stuff (so if anything, I'll be lowering the tone of their whole operation). Norn by Jeremiah Job Levine has knitting in it, and is therefore automatically awesome.

You should also be reading this excellent review in The Fortnightly Review of Robert Wilson's new piece. The review itself is good reading, and provides a succinct and thoughtful commentary on what it actually means to be modern. 

...And as if this blog weren't erratic enough as it is, I'm going to London in the gap between July and August. EPIC WINTIMES.

17 July 2011


So, there are zillions (yes, that's a scientific figure, right there) of books out right now -- literally, zillions. The ones you don't feel like paying for can be had for free online; the ones you want to pay for, you can read as paper or plastic, depending on your desires (and the kind of book it is -- thrillers and sex manuals seem to do well when no one can see what the cover looks like).

I mention this because the case in Fritz Lieber's less-than-well-known outing, The Silver Eggheads, is very similar. The book, which features a cover worthy of Good Show, Sir, is set in a world in which all fiction is produced by machines called "wordmills"; authors, such as they are, exist merely to tend the wordmills and look cool. And, as now, there are zillions of books:  Thousands on a single newsstand, everything from porn to hard science fiction (though all of them seem to have appalling covers, too). The main character, Gaspard de la Nuit, is a journeyman writer (condemned to wear a velvet smoking jacket until he levels up to, essentially, beatnik status) who loved the "milled product" he puts out -- most writers don't read much at all, and seem to be selected on the basis of casting calls.

And then the authors decide to rebel. They burn the wordmills and seem all set to destroy the publishing world.

Of course, then they realize that they have nothing to say. (This is, incidentally, imparted to us in a hilarious textual montage of desperate gangs of foppish people either holding hands in circles or drinking a lot and waiting for the muse. Most of them can get out a word or three, and that's it.)

The "eggheads" of the title come in at this point:  They are, it transpires, brains that were jarred up by a crackpot scientist a hundred years before the story starts. Gaspard, visiting his publishers, becomes embroiled in the plot to use the eggheads to create more fiction to satiate the hungry masses, made up of "book-a-day housewives" and other hopeless addicts of "smooth, milled product."

The plot, such as it is, would seem almost picaresque if it weren't so smooth in its segues; as it is, while it's nobody's model for best structure, it certainly pulls the reader along. However, Lieber's world-building is, as always, highly amusing in its detail. (He sure did put a lot of thought into robot sex, though. Seriously, Fritz, take a cold shower!)

But the timeliness of the book is truly striking. What with J.K. Rowling, for Guinness' sake, self-publishing the e-book versions of the Harry Potter books, and random (but awesome) guys outselling Stephen King in the online world, the profusion of books and writers certainly seems comparable to Lieber's science-fantasy of a world of militarized publishing. (No, I'm not kidding.)
Excuse the brevity of this post; the last few weeks have been mad here, and I actually finished reading this about three weeks ago. However, I do have some excellent news:  Bull Spec will be publishing its sixth issue on 30 July. And guess whose poem will be taking up some of their precious space? That's right, mine. Look out for it, and give them money.

20 June 2011

Making things.

I've been very busy with making stuff lately, which is why I haven't been reading much or listening to much, and therefore haven't been posting much (because I really have very little else to talk about). a

However, I will say, in my defense, that I have been tasked with costuming a production of Much Ado About Nothing, which is being put on by the school at which I work. It's kind of vaguely nineteenth-century in flavor, which means that I have been making some seriously awesome cut-away jackets (mod'd from thrift-store ones) and spent the better part of this afternoon making a skirt out of an old linen sheet. So far, so awesome, and it looks set to be a blast. Hopefully, pictures will follow.

Also being made are two doilies, a pair of socks and a pair of fingerless mitts. Yes, doilies. I was born old.

I've also been making a story in longhand in a little notebook. It's a kind of sequel to the second story I ever published, which was called "The Black Desert" and appeared in the fourth (and, sadly, final) issue of a small magazine called The Open Vein (which may tell you what kind of a story it was). Being Orthodox, the idea of angels as both good and terribly frightening beings is not much of a stretch, and this variety of angel is involved in the story I'm currently writing. There are also swims in a river, wolves, ghouls, and a desert made of glittering black sand with mysterious properties. Should be cool. (I'm currently trying to find the original short story -- perhaps I can make it available here. Is this a good or a bad idea, would you say, dear reader?)

I'm also making French boys learn English. We're doing sonnets. Fun times, fun times.

That's about all the news that's fit to bother with. Is anyone else making things? What kinds of things? I'm very curious about your projects and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

12 June 2011

Some awesome things from the internet (i.e. Linky Dinks 3)

Okay, titling a blog post that is roughly analogous to interrupting a conversation to say, "Check out this piece of lint I found in my pocket," but please, bear with me.

There are some magnificent and free entertainments out there, ladies and gentlebugs, as I'm sure you all know. But I'd like to draw the attention of whoever may be reading this blog to the existence of a few of them.

One is Mr. Micah Martin's wonderful Godhead of the Immortal Moth King. I believe I mentioned it a while back, but I'd like to talk about it at somewhat greater length here for a moment. Specifically, I would like to point out the wonderful setting Martin has created here, which combines a distinctly Middle Eastern setting with unusually interesting rules-based magic. While not as uncommon as they used to be, non-European settings for epic fantasy are still rare, and Martin's is well realized -- I can feel the heat when I read the street scenes, and it's not too much of a stretch to say that the smells can be experienced, too. The magic is also well-handled -- since it is, so far, a power not native to the people who wield it, it makes sense that it should be somewhat jarring to the wielders (see the chapters narrated by the "Crow Witch" for further details). Of course, this is leaving out the characters, who are, as I mentioned, a fascinating bunch, ranging in social status and political affiliation about as broadly as they possibly could. Although the story is just now entering its second round of viewpoints, the characters are already distinct, and the narrative voices are appropriately varied. (Also, we already have an official winner for best non-heterosexual relationship/character in fantasy. Not telling who, though -- read it yourself.) Very well done, Mr. Martin, and I can't wait to see more. Reader, begin here, and know that the every-few-days updating schedule will still seem too infrequent.

Also available for free is an EP by a band called Alpha Stasis called Escape the Machine Planet. Now, I must give a general warning:  I'm a big fan of EPs. I love listening to LPs too, don't get me wrong, but there's something very nice about EPs. They're like good short stories or novelli. They can also be a great way to explore a concept without being overwhelming. Well, Escape the Machine Planet is both a masterpiece of brevity -- three tracks, adding up to just a little over fifteen minutes -- and an epic piece of storytelling (the title kind of says it all). From the bright, spacey lead-in of "They Don't Know" to the well-controlled, well-mixed outro of "Most Powerful Android," the coherence of sound preserved by the band is excellent. The guitarwork is strong and simple without ever seeming dumb, and the beat is not lost in the production. The vocals, although they initially seem a little disengaged, end up working well with the musical style and the lyrical substance. (Also, it reminded me of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, which is a very, very good thing.) In Escape the Machine Planet, Alpha Stasis have found a way to balance the spaciness demanded by the subject matter with songs that are surprisingly tight, given their length. Also, they've giving it away. Why don't you have it yet?

Also, all you Salinger fans should check out Andrew Louth's piece on the Philokalia and The Way of the Pilgrim over at The Fortnightly Review. It's long, and a bit technical in places, but well worth reading if you want to understand just what Franny thinks she's up to in Franny and Zooey, or if you simply want to gain further knowledge of the Philokalia, its compilation and its importance.

Anyway, that's about it for the moment. There are many more awesome things out there, but those are the ones that are sticking in my head for the moment. And remember -- they're all free!

03 June 2011

All Kinds of Wrong.

My family has, for some reason, been watching piles of black-and-white movies lately. Last night, we finished off The Longest Day, which we'd started the day before (the irony isn't lost on me); before that, we watched Across the Pacific, a lesser-known Humphrey Bogart film which was... confusing, at best. However, the other night, we watched The Wrong Man.

On the surface, The Wrong Man seems like all kinds of right:  It's Hitchcock; it's '53; it's Henry Fonda and Vera Miles. What could possibly mess this up?

Well, actually, absolutely nothing. The film is technically wonderful, both in the mechanics of its storytelling and in its cinematography, to say nothing of its outstanding performances. It really is a great film; why it's not as well known as Rear Window or, indeed, Psycho -- to which it ends up bearing a hell of a lot closer resemblance -- is anyone's guess, as far as I'm concerned.

The story is that of Manny, an Italian-American musician who plays stand-up bass at a club. Manny (Fonda) has a beautiful, sweet wife (Miles) and two energetic sons, as well as a close-knit extended family (because all Italians have close-knit extended families, right?). Obviously, this doesn't last very long:  Manny is picked up for holding up a number of local stores and an insurance agency, and, due to his apparent resemblance to the criminal, is briefly arrested and put on trial. He is released on bail, and attempts to build a case with the help of a lawyer and a number of people with whom he'd been in contact over the period of time in which the hold-ups took place.

However, Manny and his wife soon discover, to their understandable consternation, that almost everyone they'd encountered at a critical time has died. And it is this coincidence that causes Manny's wife to start to lose it. She stops sleeping, blames herself for everything, and eventually hits Manny with a silver-backed hairbrush. She is institutionalized, and it seems like this story is going to take a turn for the truly messed up.

This doesn't happen. If I may be permitted a spoiler, the cops catch the actual criminal and Manny is acquitted. There was no conspiracy, no malice on the part of the officials, nothing -- just a mistaken identity. But Manny is obviously deeply unsettled by this, and his wife remains in the institution. (We are informed by a title screen before the end credits that, two years later, she was released, "completely cured," and that the family relocated to Florida. Uh... yeah.)

The thing that makes the story so unsettling is its very smallness. Unlike many of Hitchcock's other films, no one has died, there is no conspiracy, there is no real villain (unless you count the real criminal, who has about five minutes' screen time and is pretty much completely undeveloped). And yet, through the careful attention Hitchcock pays to every moment of this story, it becomes epic -- a family's struggles against and through the system that should have prevented this situation in the first place. Indeed, the observation is so close it becomes first claustrophobic, then horrific:  The scene in which Manny's wife's madness is first indicated is one of the most terrifying instances of body horror I've seen or read of in ages, and all her clothes are on and all her limbs are where they're supposed to be. It's only Hitchcock's genius for telling details, coupled with an unusual shot angle and frame, that lend a small gesture this air of real horror.

Basically, The Wrong Man is a great film. Truly, truly great. I recommend that y'all go an look for it. Now!

30 May 2011

Henry VI.

So, the reason I haven't posted anything in a few days is because I have been devouring Shakespeare's three-part epic, Henry VI. I am not kidding when I say "epic," here:  The plays have an incredibly high verse content -- such that I found myself unwittingly composing the next thing I would say in iambic pentameters -- and are each very long.

Of course, in the interests of honesty, I have to make a confession:  I read them because I couldn't -- and, for a few more days, at least, can't -- afford the fourth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. I have school to save for, you know? But this is pretty standard practice, for me. I read a pile of Shakespeare (six plays, as I recall) because I couldn't get my hands on The Sandman series. I read my classics for the wrong reasons, but still.

Henry VI -- all three of them -- forms the story of the profoundly troubled reign of the titular monarch, as one might expect. However, said monarch isn't in any of the plays all that much, and when he is, you wish he wasn't. He's regularly dismissed as being far too religiously inclined to be a king, and mostly is very bad at the job. (Incidentally, he comes off as far more concerned about the niceties of religious practice and doctrine than the Cardinal of Winchester, who has a private army and knows how to use it.) He's dull, and not very bright, and manages to escalate the War of the Roses by essentially saying, "Why do I care about your little symbols? I'm king." So... Rather a crap king.

However, he is surrounded by much more interesting characters, all scheming, though not all ill-intentioned:  In the first two plays, the Duke of Gloster (father of the better-known, more interesting one) is an excellent adviser; when he is shamed by his wife's ambition and witch-craft-dabbling, Henry's reign falls further down the tubes. On the other hand, he's got Somerset, who manages to arrange an utterly disastrous marriage with Margaret of Anjou, who, having cost Henry two crucial regions of France, proceeds to make up for it (kind of) by wearing the pants in the relationship. In spite of Somerset's hopes of controlling her, however, she soon gets shot of him, and she and Prince Edward, her son, kick some serious ass in the third part (witness, for example, this speech given by Margaret after her return from France with an army).

Of course, that is made more difficult by the arrival of my new favorite snarker, Richard, the future king. He appears in part two, and, by the end of the third part, the reader is thoroughly in his corner, as far as future kingship goes. Considering that -- in-universe, anyway -- he is described as having a withered hand, a hunched back, and legs that are two different lengths, the fact that he led a number of attacks in his father's name in the third part just makes him awesome. More awesome.

I could go on about the awesome characters (and I will take a minute to add that Joan of Arc is here portrayed as a demon-conjuring slut, which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion). However, one of the most striking things about the Henry VI cycle is how very, very plot heavy it is. The edition in which I read the plays (one of a six-volume set of the Complete Shakespeare from the '30s, and mostly undistinguished) featured brief introductions to each of the plays, but these were mostly uncomplementary, and, in fact, complained about the plot-centric nature of the plays, calling the various kidnappings(!), imprisonments(!), intrigues(!) and battles(!!!) "tedious."

Needless to say, I thoroughly disagree. The quick pace and dense plot made the plays, for me, intensely readable, not to mention lots of fun. I couldn't have picked a better fix for court intrigue and armies of badasses, and, indeed, a certain element of fantasy -- demons are conjured, and duly appear, twice in the three plays, by Joan and by the Duchess of Gloster.

I'm not quite sure why the introductions to the plays were so thoroughly down on them. Sure, there aren't so many soliloquies as Hamlet, nor are the characters as closely-observed as in, say, Macbeth, but all three parts of Henry VI are very distinct from those two. Henry VI is, indeed, the work of a young man, and although it hints at similar themes -- compare the Duchess of Gloster's punishment with the madness of Lady Macbeth, and you'll find more than a little similarity -- it tells a different kind of story. For all the excellent characterization found in these plays, for all the excellent writing, this is storytelling at its finest.

Dense, complex plotting, rendered in language like monochrome brocade -- rich, but unobtrusive in its richness -- make all three parts of Henry VI well worth reading. (Also, I found Richard III really hard to follow, not having read these first.) If you, like me, are constantly broke, I highly recommend some Shakespeare to ease your pain.

Also, the always-awesome Micah Martin (for proof, see here) has begun posting what will, presumably, be a novel entitled Godhead of the Immortal Moth King. So far, he's got a great setting and some characters who look like they'll grow to be as fascinating as basilisks. Check it out, please.

18 May 2011

"Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover": An Object-Lesson

Remember that trip to Rennes I blogged about a while back? Remember how I said I bought some books while I was there, because it's a student town and there was a really cool second-hand book shop there?

Well, damn and blast if I didn't just get attacked with an old saw by one of those books.

The creature in question is The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, by Mr. Paul Torday. Did you click on the link? Did you see that cover? Did you, too, think it might be kind of a Peter Mayle-ish deal, only in England? Did you read the blurb (which does absolutely nothing to dispel the illusion)? Did you see all the nice reviews from regular newspapers, not even especially literary ones, talking about how wonderful and poignant the book was? Okay, I'm not sure how much of this information, beyond the cover, actually appears on the Amazon page, but usually, if the Telegraph calls something a "good read," they mean, "suitable for your Grandma, and light and sweet enough for you to read on the train."

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not something I'd give to my Grandma. I wouldn't even give it to my mom. I wouldn't give it to anyone, for that matter, out of whom I didn't want to depress the Hell.

Because, at the beginning of the novel, we find Wilberforce, stumbling from a taxi and into a very expensive restaurant, buying and drinking all of two bottles of wine -- each of which cost 3000 pounds. He has, we discover in short order, already drunk three bottles of wine that day, and is eventually forced from the restaurant, or would have been had he not fallen into a three-day coma. (It gets worse and more awkward and more embarrassing from there.)

The novel, told in reverse chronological order (with sections titled "2006," "2004," "2003" and "2002"), is not an easy, nor a pleasant, nor even an enjoyable read. I couldn't finish the thing, mostly because -- as an inveterate end-reader -- I soon discovered that there would be no closure on the most recent part of the narrative. This annoyed me, and I almost stopped reading right then (i.e. around page 5). But I stuck it out -- for another two hundred pages, anyway -- and now, I'm annoyed.

Because the problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not that it offers no solutions, no resolution and no ending. The problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is that it's just so well written, so compelling in its voice and its narrative structure -- for the earlier part of the book, anyway -- that it was very difficult to put down. The first one hundred and fifty pages were ridiculously well-crafted. The narrator was so unstable and so unusual in the accuracy of his tone -- half whinging, half conspiratorial -- that the book might have been carried at least that far on the strength of that voice alone.

Unfortunately, the book flagged as the narrative went further into Wilberforce's past, and the reverse-chronological structure, it rapidly becomes apparent, was unnecessary. Maintaining the completely delusional voice of the first part of the book throughout its length would have been difficult, certainly, but Mr. Torday proved himself quite equal to the task in the most difficult part of the book -- i.e. the opening section -- that I feel annoyingly certain he could have kept it up. Revealing Wilberforce's through his degrading memory would have been far more interesting than showing us a train wreck in reverse. If Mr. Torday was truly wedded to the reverse-chronology thing, though, he really needed some kind of epilogue, afterward or whatever to tie up that most recent "vintage."

But seriously, also, don't judge this one by its cover.

In other reading news, I finished Richard III yesterday, and realized -- not for the first time -- that I read everything like fantasy. I really kept expecting Daenerys Targaryen to show up with some dragons, which I guess stands to reason since George R.R. Martin pulled from the Wars of the Roses, right down to -- if Shakespeare is to be believed -- the names.

Other than that, though, not much interesting. My distance learning courses are finished, and I am free to do nothing, except when I'm at work.

13 May 2011

Linky Dinks 2: Dreams Come True (and some review-ku)

In my ongoing series of blog-posts that-are-mostly-collections-of-links, here is one that starts off with cool news:  My review of Alasdair Paterson's On the Governing of Empires is up over at the Fortnightly Review! Such a wonderful collection of poems... I hope I was positive enough.

Also, since I've been watching a lot of movies lately, notice must be taken of the two most recent:  Breathless and Assassin in Love, a.k.a. The Baker.

In over-rated
Films, French people kill each other
While cameras dance.

Assassin in Love
Wales is too pretty,
But village silliness wins.
Michael Gambon, too.

I should probably mention, in connection with the latter, that it was very, very good, in spite of its crap title. Tight, funny and nicely shot (and featuring exploding sheep), it was well worth the watching. I highly recommend it. (Also, Michael Gambon, for whom I have quite a thing.) It reminded me a little of In Bruges, and, while not displacing that as one of my favorite movies, is certainly one I'll watch again.

Also, I have recently discovered the dubious joys of Esben and the Witch, and I would like to note that I say "dubious" in the sense of, "There's joy in those people?" Kind of ambient, pretty much all awesome, the band takes its name from a Danish fairy tale. Awesome as that is, it has nothing on the video for their lead single from the album Violet Cries, "Marching Song." Seriously, watch that thing. It's about as close to a film version of a Joe Abercrombie novel as you can get without just making a big damn movie of the First Law Trilogy.

That's about it, for now. Hopefully, more cool stuff will be showing up here. Who can say?

09 May 2011

Monks in the Movies.

Last night, I got to see Of Gods and Men, the French/Algerian production that's been winning all the awards, and which the French bishops (Catholic, bien sûr) have been urging their flocks to see. It was... erm...

Well, the story is that, at the Tibhirine Monastery in the mountains of Algeria, there are a double handful of monks, most of them older, but still very active in the community. They run the best hospital around, and the villagers help them out. Then the Algerian civil war kicks in, some terrorists start terrorizing both the locals and the monks, and the monks are urged to flee by both the Algerian military -- whose protection they refuse -- and the local mayor (I think). Instead, the monks stay, continuing to help the local people, and even treating some of the terrorists without question. When the head terrorist is killed, the abbot, Brother Christian (no, really) is called in to identify him. Eventually, all but two of the monks, who managed to hide, are abducted, held briefly for ransom from the French government and then beheaded.

As I say, the film's gotten lots of awards, and maybe it's better in the cinema. It's amazing that it's based on a true story (but then, aren't they all, these days?) but the technical problems of the film are myriad. In fact, it's a bit distressing that a film so poorly structured could win so many awards. Every shot went on for minutes at a time, it seemed. It didn't help that the film was shot like a horror movie and when there was a soundtrack, it was usually one or two guys chanting. This horror-movie-ish aspect leads the viewer to expect some kind of jump scene, some relief to the tension -- but tension, if it's poorly sustained over too long a period of time, just turns into boredom. The plot itself was so very slow moving, it was difficult, in places, to remember what had happened -- when, in fact, very little had in the first place.

The characters, also, were underdeveloped, and seriously, it took about an hour and forty-five minutes -- of a two-hour film -- to remember anyone but the abbot's name. Some of the characters themselves were interesting, but their role as characters was underplayed. Brother Luc, for example, the monastery's doctor -- an excellent character. According to the documentary included on the disc, he had joined that monastery some fifty years before the events of the film, and he had no intention of ever leaving. He was also, when he was allowed to open his mouth at all, very wry and full of good advice. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is one in which Brother Luc is giving advice to a young girl from the village who has sought his council. She's being married to a man she isn't especially interested in, but she approaches this in a very roundabout way, first asking the monk if he'd ever been in love. His responses are sweet and appropriate to a monk without being overbearing. Unfortunately, neither the subplot with the young girl -- who disappears midway through the film, never to return -- nor Brother Luc as a character are properly developed. He's memorable because he's interesting, but we never see his full potential.

Okay, so the plot was overextended and the characterization rough at best -- sounds par for the course. But more troubling, to me, was the ill-defined nature of the film's main idea. What precisely was Of Gods and Men trying to say? I still don't know. We learned a little about how the monks live their lives, but that wasn't point. There was some stuff about the Algerian civil war ('90s model), but that wasn't the point either.

The nail was, I think, stricken upon its head by my dear sister, who pointed out that everything the film said was exactly what everyone -- especially if "everyone" is French -- wants to hear. The Western -- or at least, non-Muslim -- way of life has value and beauty, but so does Islam and its followers. You can get along with terrorists (at least until they change leadership) by being nice and helping them when they're sick. The military is always bad. French girls shouldn't protest not being allowed to wear the veil in school if they want to -- girls in Algeria are (or were) getting killed for not wearing it in public. Essentially, it affirmed a lot of ideas that are not especially interesting, nor especially helpful, when dealing with religion. (Except the one about Islam and Christianity being of equal value and potential for good -- that stands, in my book.)

But if you're dead set on seeing a film about monks, just watch The Island, the Russian/French production that made the rounds a couple of years ago. It wasn't quite as recognized as Of Gods and Men, probably because the French episcopacy wasn't providing publicity for it, but it was much more thoughtful, its message was clearer -- and it was even funny.

08 May 2011

Hornets and Eagles

I spent the past weekend in Rennes, an old (settled by Romans) city in the middle of Brittany. I was there with my mom and sisters so my baby sister could take her SAT (on which I hope and pray that she did well). It's a beautiful, interesting, profoundly unusual kind of city, its heart a jumble of architectural styles that career wildly from Medieval half-timbered façades to 18th-century bourgeois to mid-20th-century brutality -- usually on the same block. The food was cheap but the clothes were expensive; the graffiti and the books were plentiful but it was a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the nearest grocery store. Weird place -- a made-up-seeming city.

But, more importantly (ha!) I saw two movies yesterday:  The Eagle and The Green Hornet.

Now, I have to admit that I've been kind of OD'ing on action comedy lately (mostly thanks to Burn Notice) and have been craving something more serious, more thoughtful. The Eagle provided me with that. I blogged about the book on which it's based, discussing the ambiguity of its position as a children's book, and some of its more interesting salient characteristics, including the status of its main character as a crippled action hero and the utter strangeness of the northern tribes.

I have to say, the film preserved the latter of these beautifully, using techniques both standard (seriously, does everyone who lives on a farm in Scotland squint suspiciously at all newcomers? Have they always done that?) and unusual (the Romans speak English with American accents; the northerners usually speak either old Gaelic of some variety, or English or Scots-accented English). The costuming was a lot of fun, especially on the few occasions when women were seen, and the landscape was beautifully rendered -- though most of the film was shot in Hungary, not Scotland/England as one might have hoped. Donald Sutherland put in an entertaining performance, but Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum both did fine work. Tatum's performance was a surprise to me -- since I knew him mostly from She's the Man, I was worried that he wouldn't be able to pull a character like Marcus off effectively. However, he did a very good job with both the script and the problems of acting in, y'know, short skirts and stuff.

The former salient quality -- Marcus' injury and its affect on his abilities -- was also well-handled. The film also emphasized his general helplessness north of the wall in a convincing manner. Not only was Marcus often in pain, sometimes outright limping and, towards the end, nearly unable to stand, but he was also completely at the mercy of his British slave, Esca, who may or may not be helping him. (Esca's moral position is actually more interesting than in the book in the film version -- we just don't know if he's trying to help Marcus or prevent him from doing what he's trying to do, and the confusion is much stronger than it ever was in the book.) Often, Marcus is seen to shout, "What is going on?" to Esca, who often just doesn't tell him. By the end of the film, of course, they're buddies -- fighting off blue-painted street punks-er, Seal People kind of does that -- but for the better part, Esca may or may not actively desire Marcus' death.

In many ways, The Eagle was an improvement on Sutcliff's novel. The plot was a great deal more satisfying in its conclusion, and the distinctly uncomfortable romantic element between Marcus and a thirteen-year-old girl(!) was dropped entirely. However, the film was remarkably close to the spirit of the book, in part through the filmmakers' use of a very paranoid, '70s style of filming and in part through the fact that, seriously, the northerners are wearing fur coats and no pants.

And then I came home, and saw The Green Hornet. All I can say is, the title could easily have been changed to Mystery Men 2:  Attack of the Idiot Playboy. However, like Mystery Men, The Green Hornet had some very sharp writing and ridiculously cool (emphasis on the "ridiculous," there) action sequences, as well as good performances all around. James Franco's uncredited cameo at the start of the film was very amusing, and Christoph Waltz stole pretty much every scene he was in.

However, I had singular difficulties with Seth Rogen's Britt Reid (a.k.a. the Green Hornet). The character was so thoroughly unpleasant and thoughtless that I really, really, really wanted Cato (or is it Kato -- anyway, Jay Chou's character) to punch him out for a week, and maybe kneecap him into the bargain. I just did not care about him at all. The performance was great -- but I'm not sure that that helped.

Anyway, long weekend. My shoulder is bruised; I have a bunch of stories in the submissions pipeline; I have maths homework to finish.

Coming soon:  Hopefully, a review of On the Governing of Empires by Alasdair Paterson in The Fortnightly Review.

23 April 2011

Con Lento.

A few days ago I finished reading Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent. And quite honestly, I thought it was amazing.

Often, it is difficult to find succinctness in writing about faiths with a great deal of mysticism within their doctrines. Orthodox Christianity is one of these, and readers unfamiliar with much of Orthodox writing would be astonished at how much meandering goes on, even if the book itself is fairly brief. Part of this comes from the many (so very many) translations done by people familiar with the religion in question but not terribly at home in English, but not everything is the translator's fault. Often the meandering is beautiful and enlightening -- but if you're a kid trying to figure out why you're vegetarian part of the year, it gets a little confusing. (Trust me on that one.)

Great Lent does not have this problem. Schmemann was educated in Paris and, later, worked with St. Vladimir's Seminary in New York. He is at home in the English language, and seems to understand how to use it to explain things to people (possibly from spending a lot of time working with students). Great Lent is very brief -- the book proper is just over 100 pages, though my copy included another article as an appendix that pushed it up to 130-odd -- but very engaging and, what's more, actually educational. Schmemann's explanations for some of the unusual aspects of Orthodoxy (the strict fasting rules, the attitude towards communion and confession, the use of icons and, indeed, the very wording of the liturgy) are clear and comprehensible, and he doesn't fall back on vagaries like many writers. Indeed, some passages are very beautiful, and I have them earmarked for future quotation (because I do that).

Nor does he condemn those who don't understand what he's talking about or were unfamiliar with the ideas and beliefs behind Lent in the Orthodox Church. Instead, his writing is energetic and, at times, cheerful, though he sometimes veers into a near-polemical intensity which can be a little off-putting.

However, the book never becomes strident, nor does it ever become mean. Schmemann seeks to educate, not to intimidate, and his goal is fully met in this book.

10 April 2011

Writing Things.

So, I've done yet another edit of my epic tale of virtual education in the near past, which is untitled, unpublished, and, for all statistical purposes, unread by anyone (other than my magnificent sibs, my mom, and a couple of nice people at the school I used to go to). I get ridiculously into that story when I'm working on it. I'm pleased with it, to be honest.

I also have submitted some stories and poems to various venues, though, in case anyone needs reminding, my poem "Clotho's Favor" is still up over at Eternal Haunted Summer.

In other (epic) news, I've got a retelling of... erm... that weird fairy tale with the six brothers who were turned into swans and the sister who made them shirts and saved them. This one. Here's an English translation of the Grimm brothers' version. Apparently, there are more of these, which is news to me. But it's one of my favorite fairy tales and has been for a long time -- though, in typical fairy tale fashion, it's the things that aren't explored in the original that stick with me. Most significantly, what are the implications of having a brother whose arm is a swan's wing? What does that do to the person who was supposed to help him? (And before anyone asks, no, I haven't read Daughter of the Forest. Yet.)

Anyway, my poem takes the form of a post-hoc letter from the sixth son, the one left with a swan's wing, to his sister, now married to the king, with her thoughts interposed. The timeline in mine is somewhat different than the Grimms' version, but I claim artistic license on that. The brother's letter is in free verse, while the sister's thoughts are set in unrhymed iambic tetrameter. (I suck at scansion, and it was the best I could do.) I'm hoping to finish it soon; my wonderful baby sister has given me some good suggestions on elements that need to be included. Then my little saga will toddle off down the submissions pipeline, and we'll see how he does.

In other news, I'm reading La Vie Mode d'Emploi by Georges Perec, and had a lovely afternoon at this place. I love book festivals and literary festivals; I can smell my own. (And since this is France and deodorant is always optional and generally ineffective, I mean that literally.) Also, I am knitting more stuff, and crocheting things, too. Pictures to follow, perhaps?

08 April 2011

Not Magical History.

John Binns' name has made me and some of my Harry-Potter-loving friends giggle a few times, seeing as it's the name of the singularly boring professor who teaches History of Magic at Hogwarts. However, the Binns responsible for An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches is quite the opposite of a boring ghost. For one thing, no revenant could have created so lively a voice; for another, it's... y'know... not a history of magic. What Binns has done is to create a readable, interesting breakdown of Orthodox Christian belief in its various facets, covering both Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches, as well as the Greek Catholic and other Uniate belief systems.

Binns writes from the perspective of a terribly well-informed outsider:  Although himself a vicar in the Church of England, Binns is part of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius at Cambridge, as well as being the author of a number of books on topics in Orthodoxy. However, his sympathy with Orthodoxy of all stripes is very tenderly displayed throughout An Introduction..., and he is, thankfully, quite gifted in explaining the finer points of doctrinal issues and, equally importantly, why seemingly trivial issues can have ramifications far beyond what one might expect. He explains the Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian divide clearly and gracefully, and also casts a thoughtful eye over the events leading up to and surrounding the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Unlike a number of Byzantinists -- whose foci are, admittedly, elsewhere -- Binns is not content to let the Papal Bull lie, and identifies as more important the increasingly disastrous Crusades as the true culprit in permanently dividing the East from the West.

Binns is equally adroit, however, with the more modern history of the church, elucidating in the latter chapters its transformation from a church of empire, to a church oppressed, to a church that is, sometimes to its own detriment, often quite nationalist. He makes careful use of examples, and even when discussing more modern issues revolving around recent, delicate maneuvers towards ecumenism, he is at pains to be fair to all sides.

I honestly found An Introduction to the Orthodox Christian Churches to be not only quite readable, but also very enjoyable. I preferred it to my (admittedly flawed) memory of The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware's seminal text. Binns' elegant writing on the topic also encouraged me to begin reading this, which I also am thoroughly enjoying. I am very pleased to have finally found the time to read An Introduction..., and I look forward to seeing what else John Binns may have to say upon this more fascinating and dearly-held subject.

26 March 2011

I Am Five Fairies.

I spent the last week helping put on this awesome thing. Next year, you should definitely come. We had good music and good readings. In the evening devoted to A Midsummer Night's Dream I was five fairies -- the unnamed one from II.i, and the four (yes, in the same scene) that Titania tells to pamper Bottom in III.i. It was also a real privilege to hear the music of both the Collège that hosted the event, and that of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Bassano, who treated us denizens of the savage Vendée to their own lovely music and more interesting information on the possible identity of the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I also got to hear Bach's Suite No.3 in C Major played on a viola. It was beautifully and I cannot describe it.

I am still beavering away on Hugo's L'Homme Qui Rit, which is awesome. As in, unexpectedly and somewhat unprecedentedly epic in the sense of "vast and sweeping." His style is amazing -- in a way, it seems to prefigure Faulkner in his long sweeps of gorgeous rhetoric, of "telling" rather than "showing" with reckless abandon, upon which the kibosh is then put with a single, brief sentence -- often only two words long. The characters have the kind of figured, semi-divine strength I expect (and find) in something like the Gormenghast trilogy, but which are here rendered as street people and secret histories in the singularly muddled late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England. (And yes, it is hilarious to read English words in French, as they suddenly appear like Vikings in Versailles.)

Also, have you read my poem yet? If you haven't, I wish you would -- I think it's pretty good, and it was very, very kind of the good editors and editrices to accept and publish it so handsomely. 

I'm knitting a sock right now, and it's completely addictive.

Forthcoming:  Probably a post on re-reading The Filth by Grant Morrison et al. over the course of two nights.

20 March 2011

Poem! (et cetera)

So, the good people at Eternal Haunted Summer have published my poem, "Clotho's Favor." You should definitely go and read it, which you can do here.

Also, there's some messed up things going on with history repeating itself. Like this story from the Wall Street Journal. Debtors' prison? Seriously, America? For one thing, it's pretty pointless; for another, the Founding Fathers were ag'in 'em. I'll find some citations for that, but it's one of the major issues that made people not want to stay in England. So it seems bizarre to trot that old nag out now, of all times. It's pretty weird.

In other news, I'm reading L'Homme Qui Rit by Victor Hugo. I'm reading it for entirely the wrong reasons, but that's okay:  It's still very good. I'm also going to be reviewing another collection of poetry for The Fortnightly Review (new edition), but shhh! Trade secret!

Anyway, I'll have more to say about things later.

08 March 2011

Review-kus and some other poetry stuff.

I've done a lot of reading lately, so I will discuss the things I've read by making up some haikus about them. Here they are.

Les Anges Deçus by Catherine Locandro
A book read in French
With unnamed cities sweating --
Tenseness washed by rain.

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
This book is too cool
For this form -- more to come soon.
Blood, mud and swords win.

Pavel Florensky:  A Quiet Genius by Avril Pyman
Science and belief
Mingled in this great, brave man,
Undaunted by frost.

Rose Demonics:  Poems, 1936-1963 by Elliot Coleman
Of Eliot, Pound, et. al.,
Coleman's verse is strong.

The Tain, trans. Ciaran Carson
Carson's translation
Has more plot than Kinsella's;
Less mythic strangeness. 

Two other books were also read during my school's half-term break; these are reviewed at greater length here. Thank you, The Fortnightly Review (New Edition) for giving me the privilege of writing for you.

Also, please bear in mind, ladies and gentle-bugs, that my poem "Clotho's Favor" will be appearing in the Spring Equinox issue of Eternal Haunted Summer. Please go and marvel at the fine writing available there. Other stories and poems are in the submissions pipeline and will hopefully be appearing various other places shortly. (I hope.)

25 February 2011

The M-Game.

While this is by no means a complete look at the universe that constituted the M-Game, I was reminded of it by this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing the value of imaginative play. The article begins with two children, six and seven years of age, giving the author a guided tour of the box house they have made. These two children, hailing from New York City, New York, have outfitted their house with a flat-screen TV (in the form of a piece of black cloth) and a skylight, made the skylights usually are (which is to say, they ripped a hole in the roof and called it a skylight). They are not pleased by the author's interruption, because they have to clean the place up. I think they just moved in or something.

Regardless, I wonder what they'd come up with if they had been given the bountiful natural resources afforded by a childhood in rural south-central PA, which was my stomping ground when the M-Game came about. I was about eleven, maybe a little older, and all around me were the Appalachian mountains -- which looked, I noticed, a lot like the mountainous terrain that characterized the fantasy novels I was just beginning to read at the time.

I have two younger sisters, both of whom are, without doubt, more creative and interesting than I am. We were close friends with another set of sisters, who lived nearby. The two of them, plus the three of us, created the most interesting role-playing system I've ever encountered, in one of the best settings for it.

Okay, it should be noted here that we were all pretty distracted:  The Lord of the Rings:  The fellowship of the Ring was fresh in our minds; the edited versions of Yu Yu Hakusho and Rurouni Kenshin were playing on Cartoon Network; Chloe (the older of the two sisters we were friends with) and I were quite deeply engaged in Tamora Pierce; the five of us were Harry Potter fans of the the kind of rabidity that can only exist in the preadolescent. Also, Chloe and her sister tended to be allowed to watch more movies than my sisters and I:  The Matrix was right up there with all the other stuff.

So one day, in Chloe's backyard, the M-Game -- or, more properly, the Medieval Journey Game -- began. It's difficult to say exactly how it happened, but suddenly, there's Chloe sitting on her front stoop, asking if you wanted the blue bean or the red bean. She had stepped out of character (usually, she was Cassandra, a witch) for a little encounter, and I, the witch Thidriel, was there with my hobbit pal (usually Cassandra's sidekick and, outside the M-Game, my youngest sister) and two elves named Thor and Loki (Chloe's little sister and my younger sister). Also, beans? Cinnamon mints from my mom's purse.

The game spiralled on for a long, long, long afternoon, until it was 5pm, we had to go, and Loki, it was revealed, was actually a ridiculously powerful evil... thing. It's a bit hazy, but I know what I was talking to Chloe about on the phone for the next two years:  The Medieval Journey Game.

We put a lot of time into that game, a lot of time, a lot of thought, and a lot of energy. The game was, to a certain extent, another facet of our friendship. Sure, we were pals, and our letters (because the game began just before my interminable peregrinations to Europe did) were full of random jokes about monkeys and what was happening in the Dark Tournament. But we wrote them with dip pens on paper printed to look like parchment, and sealed them with sealing wax in ridiculous colors. We invested in nuts and bolts of various sizes to use as coinage; capes and boots became prized thrift store finds.

One summer day, we even took it on the road:  Instead of Chloe's backyard in the rural suburbs, we played the game on my family's farm. Along a one-mile track that led over fields and hills, we rambled and chattered and looked for streams to ford, for encounters to... encounter. The hobbit took off her shoes; Cassandra and I found long sticks to mark our rank. (Witches are as strong as wizards, and by God, they have staves, too.) The elves carried bottles of flat 7-Up and pieces of lembas (potato bread, I think).

It was a beautiful place to be on a hot summer day. We rolled up our trousers and put our feet in the stream, and that was enough:  By the time we were there, Chloe and I had slaked our desire for stick-fights, the elves had shared their 7-Up, and we were covered in sweat. The stream was, truly, something from the fantasy world we were in:  Cool water, flowing over slightly silty stones in the hollow between two hills, surrounded by trees and bushes, black-raspberries bushes not yet in fruit, but soon, soon...

Later, we tried to do more formal roleplaying -- you know, with the dice and stuff -- but it never stacked up. Always, when we spend time together, we end up in some semi-formal playacting:  Last time, it was an all-night game of Murder, in which the nature of the detectives and the characters was so heavily imbued with characters not our own (I, who have never even been properly drunk, was a twitching junky from North Carolina named Jake; Chloe was a hooker from New Jersey who pretended she was English) that the entire night might almost have been a film.

So, what does this mean? Well, it means that I'm still happy to sit up all night playacting, either with other people or all alone (witness the writerliness). It means, also, that with proper encouragement, the kind of imaginative play heralded as so important in the early years of a child's development can also be fostered in children beyond elementary-school age, which may explain the continuing popularity of speculative fiction for children, even now that Harry Potter is four years' done (as noted in Strange Horizons). But beyond that...

Beyond that is the stream between the hills, where fantasy and reality not only blend but cease entirely to matter.

19 February 2011

Aprons and Tattoos.

So, in the last week-ish, I have read two books. They were gripping and amazing, and both were read for entirely the wrong reasons. They were The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff and The Tain, Thomas Kinsella's version -- and, according to Kim McCone (Irish philologist) one of the finest translations for the common reader. (That said, I'm totally hitting the Cecile O'Rahilly version of recension 1, to which I have access and which access will be duly abused.)

The Eagle of the Ninth is, theoretically, a children's book, though how far it is specifically a children's book is debatable:  The main character is of the age of majority, and most of his actions are as intense as they would be in a "mainstream" novel, albeit without much of a sexual component. The novel relates the story of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion in the roman army circa. 125AD-ish. He has been sent to Britain, where he is to take over command of a small frontier outpost. The takeover goes smoothly enough -- but within the first three chapters, the outpost has suffered a raid by marauding Dumnonii (I think), and, although the outpost is still held by the Romans, Marcus himself has had to leave the military. In the raid, he suffered a severe injury to his leg, which leaves him more or less crippled throughout the remainder of the book -- which, incidentally, goes on for a further 18 chapters. We hear about the leg.

Marcus' adventures really only begin, however, when he moves in with his uncle, a retired military man who now calls Britain his home. There, he encounters a young gladiator, Esca, who is a captured native Briton. He buys Esca as a slave -- and then volunteers to go on a mission into the wild north, to recapture the eagle mascot of his father's legion.

Oh yes, Marcus has his backstory:  His father disappeared when he was very young, vanished in the wilds north of Hadrian's wall. The eagle of his legion -- without which the legion cannot be re-formed -- was lost there, too. Marcus dreams of being able to re-create his father's legion, and of retrieving the eagle and his father's honor. What follows is the tale of Marcus' travels north of the wall, trying to find the eagle. Along the way, he uncovers the truth about the end of the Ninth Hispana, and learns to live with life as it now is for him -- although Marcus is a young man, the book elegantly explores the idea that this is the last adventure of this kind he may ever have, his last opportunity to be a man of action in this particular way.

The setting was beautifully realized, too:  The strangeness of the British natives was well-developed, and the reader easily caught the sense that she was reading about a completely different culture, one that has nothing to do with England and Englishness as it now exists. The author's love of history comes through in geeky detail (because I know my kind when I encounter it), such as her precise description of a British-style chariot, and the British characters' obsession with horses and their breeding. The relationship between the main character and Esca, the Briton who is helping him in his quest, is also well-handled. In fact, the only odd note in the book is the fact that the main character, who must be in his early twenties, is shown to be falling in love with a girl who has scarcely entered her teens. While this may have been acceptable in the time of the Romans (and there's some debate about how young they really did marry back then), it seems odd and kind of creepy to a modern reader.

However, the book easily transcends the young adult literature ghetto into which it has been shunted, and I recommend it highly. Of course, as I said, my reasons for reading it are all wrong, and are, in fact, singular:  The release of the film of the book, combined with the book's ready availability around the school where I work, prompted me to read it. It am very glad I did; it was an excellent guide to how to write historical fiction.

Then I got on to The Tain.

The Eagle of the Ninth is a book that is said to be for children, mostly, I suspect, because it doesn't contain overt, gratuitous or graphic violence or sexuality. The Tain has all of those things, plus cussing pregnant women, bizarre shonen-animesque fight scenes, and casual references to bodily functions that we now build small, tiled rooms to hide. Did I mention the violence? And the homosexually-charged shonen-animesque fight scenes? Those were there, too.

Anyway, The Tain is Thomas Kinsella's version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, or, in English, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. This is an Irish myth cycle, which exists in three versions, two of which are more or less complete, though dating from long after the story was originally conceived, told, written or however you'd like to put it. The plot centers around Ailill and Mebd, the king and queen of Connacht, going on a cattle raid into neighboring Cooley (names here Anglicized to protect people who have tongues) to steal Dunn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley.

The death toll is astronomical.

Because Mebd and Ailill didn't realize that they would be up against Cúchulainn, the seventeen-year-old war prodigy who can, apparently, turn himself inside out to further his success in battle (which transformations are, in the sole misstep of the book, translated as "warp-spasms" by Kinsella). He was also, the reader realizes with discomfort, wooing women, making babies and killing people by the age of five or so. At the beginning of the book, he pledges himself to Emer, but this is, apparently, forgotten fairly soon, because he has a child with another woman (which he kills by accident, because the kid looked at him wrong or something). He tends to run around in a silk apron, which is all kinds of wrong. He also has seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot and seven pupils in each eye -- and is also, apparently, good-looking enough that the women following the Connacht army climb onto the shoulders of their men to have a look at him.

The comparisons to shonen anime are intentional, mind you, and serve a deeper purpose here:  Like the best of that genre of popular culture, The Tain is both more than faintly ridiculous ("[He cast the gae bolgas] from the fork of his foot, and sent it casting toward Ferdia [...] and [it] went coursing through the highways and byways of his body so that every single joint was filled with barbs." I'm not kidding. Pages 196-7, OUP paperback 1970, if you don't believe me. And that's without the "millstone" that is apparently under Ferdia's... apron.) and intensely moving:  Just after the parenthetically-quoted scene, Cúchulainn movingly mourns the loss of Ferdia, who was his foster brother (when he was training with the mother of his baby). This is after the seventeen-year-old has been the only man guarding the borders while all the other men of Ulster are down with the sickness (which was set on them by one of the aforementioned cussing pregnant women). Cúchulainn's desperation is as moving as Hector's mother weeping on the walls of Troy, and having to fight his foster brother to the death is the last straw. Fortunately, that's about when the Ulstermen finally get their act together and start kicking some Connacht ass.

Kinsella's retelling does a fantastic job of remaining true to the style of mythology, keeping in many of the long lists of names of people who never again appear in the story and the topographical digressions that would make Hardy blush (never have directions for getting from point A to point B been so slaveringly detailed as here). However, he never loses sight of the characterization: Cúchulainn, for all his ridiculous skill, is still seventeen, desperately trying to defend his home turf when no one else can; Fergus, the exiled Ulsterman who helps Ailill and Mebd on their stupid, vain raid, is convincingly conflicted about his role in the conflict. It is Mebd, however, who emerges at the most hilarious and unprecendented times. Her character is so modern, so fresh and funny and foul-mouthed, she might have walked off of the set of a modern action movie. From the pillow talk at the beginning, which sets the whole idiot-ball rolling, to the climactic battle scene (for the sake of delicacy, we'll say that her femininity sure can pick a time to show itself), she is both the reason for the plot -- it was her pride that set the Connachtmen on the cattle-raiding path -- and a great mover thereof. Besides that, we are told that she can hold her own in battle, and wields a big damn sword while riding around in her chariot. (And suggesting that three thousand men be killed because, as a unit within her army, they're too good at everything and will piss everyone else off. She does that, too -- quite early on, in fact).

In this case, I have one marginally valid reason for reading:  I've had an idea in the back of my mind, which has so far manifested as about a thousand words of word-processor document, for a retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge among the... hill people of the Appalachian mountains. (In mine, Donn Cúailnge is a mechanical bull heisted from a local bar when it went belly-up. And Cúchulainn is renamed Koocherlain -- or Koo for short.) This will, however, require further research, and many more giggles about millstones and the general bizarrerie of the thing.

The less valid and more pressing reason, however, is my long-time love for the Epic Rocking EP brought to you by some bookish person from Portland. Yes, it's all Colin Meloy and his friends' fault. (Not that I'm complaining.)

At any rate, the book I'm reading now has a picture of a big bloody ax on the cover. Hello, half-0term break! Where have you been since I received my copy of this axe-fronted book several days before my American friends got it?

12 February 2011

Lustrous, or, An Appreciation of Ed Harcourt.

So, I am on a massive Ed Harcourt kick. Massive kick. As in, have listened to little else for the last month.

How can I do this? Well, for one thing, I have all his albums that were released on CD. (Oddly, for me, I haven't managed to pick up the download ones... Go figure, eh?) These are, for the curious, "Here Be Monsters" (2001), "From Every Sphere" (2003, and the first of his albums I listened to), "Strangers" (2004), "The Beautiful Lie" (2006) and, possibly my favorite of the lot, "Lustre," released last year.

Although I say that "Lustre" is, thus far, my favorite, it's kind of a moot point. Harcourt has maintained the level of freshness-of-vision found in his earliest records, while honing and maturing his sound. His material, too, has become more mature -- I'm listening to "Here Be Monsters" right now, and there's a lot of youthful self-image that, while leading to good songs, doesn't necessarily make sense with the creator himself:  "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" is an old man's song, incongruously performed by a young man. With its imagery of slow death and outward darkness to hide pain, it really just doesn't make sense for a man who was then barely into his twenties. (Not that he shouldn't have written the song, and not that such subject matter can't be dealt with by younger people.) There is a touch of the absurd to it, of a man trying on hats in the attic to see which family figure he will become.

This air carries over into "From Every Sphere," but that album had a more polished sound -- more Harry Nilsson than an audibly-vocal'd Pastels. However, "From Every Sphere" carried a different tone lyrically, as well, and included more musical experimentation:  "All of Your Days Will Be Blessed," for example, features a wheezy harmonium (which appealed to me greatly, since the house I lived in when the album came out also featured a wheezy harmonium, but I wasn't allowed to touch that one) and, although the mournful horns that appeared on "Here Be Monsters" also played a part in "From Every Sphere," there was more experimentation with a music-hall sound, and more inclusion of strings.

However, Harcourt's music-hall is a music-hall from an Angela Carter novel (I'm thinking, actually, of the puppet theatre in The Magic Toyshop). "Strangers" expanded on this, and branched out into other sounds:  The full-on wailing of violin, voice and piano in "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is, while not necessarily mature, a lot more mature in its sound and in its ambition than similar exercises (such as the aforementioned "Beneath the Heart of Darkness"). But "Strangers" was a difficult album, not least because of its much bleaker lyrical outlook. "Let Love Not Weigh Me Down" is (rather obviously) not a love song, and other tracks -- from "The Music Box," with its Pearls Before Swine-ish tale of war and destruction, to "The Trap Door" and the obviously-titled "Loneliness" -- display a grimness not previously seen in Harcourt's work, even in those attic-adventurings from "Here Be Monsters."

Harcourt followed that with "The Beautiful Lie," an album that was both a return to form, in terms of a more varied lyrical content, and an obviously better album than Harcourt's prior efforts. "The Beautiful Lie" shows a young man now on the other side of 25, one who now has some experience of the world. It's the difference between the character of the creator of Nicholas Nickleby in his eponymous novel and Richard Carstairs in Bleak House -- he is conscious of being the same person, but also different:  Capable of failure, capable of, indeed, become the guy in "Beneath the Heart of Darkness" if he's not careful.

"The Beautiful Lie" had guest appearances from people like The Magic Numbers, but these almost blend into the background:  It's Harcourt's album through and through. "Visit From the Dead Dog" is a good example of this. Although it displays the same poppy sensibility of Harcourt's early albums, the dichotomy between the lyrical subject and the rather cheerful music is well-handled and does not seem forced. The slower songs on the album are contrasted well with the manic moments. Look, for example, at the transition between "Scatterbraine" (which is as manically annoying as the additional "e" at the end of the word would hint) and "Rain on the Pretty Ones," which has more than a hint of Harcourt's earlier song, "The Wind Through the Trees." But while "The Wind Through the Trees" seemed a little dull after the exuberance of tracks like "The Apple of My Eye," "Rain on the Pretty Ones" seems fitting after the caper-film madness of the preceding song. Its sadness is the proper antidote to mania.

But of course, this leads us to "Lustre," Harcourt's most recent release. Previously, I stated that this was my favorite of Harcourt's albums. This is not a difficult claim to make, for me:  Essentially, on this album, Harcourt looks at the things he has played with in the past, the hat's he's tried on, so to speak, and reexamines them as an actual adult. The feral gothiness that characterized tracks like "Undertaker Strut" ("From Every Sphere") is present in "Heart of a Wolf," but this time, it makes sense -- it's addressed to someone, rather than just pulling up imagery. The poppy sensibility, yes:  "A Secret Society" and "Do As I Say Not As I Do" seem like "Shanghai" ("Here Be Monsters") and "Kids (Rise From the Ashes)" ("Strangers") but with a happiness, a pleasure in the creator's place in life, that was not present in earlier albums.

There is an explanation for this, of course:  In the making of his last album, Harcourt got married and, more recently, the couple had their first child. But that happiness, that lack of desperation, has been translated into an album that is profoundly enjoyable:  Harcourt's contentment is catching. Where other artists, on reaching familial bliss, often retire (especially artists in Harcourt's position -- caught, rather, between the underground and the bright lights of fame and fortune, and who can really busk on the subway stairs?) or make music that is kind of... boring, Harcourt has not done that. "Lustre" is a strong album, in more ways than one:  Sonically, of course, lyrically, yes, but also spiritually. There's a fortitude behind the "Lustre," and I hope that Harcourt continues to explore this rich but largely unmined vein of human emotion.