Archive for October, 2011
Gogol’s short story “The Nose” is one of my all-time favorites. When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2004, we had to track down the house where the main character wakes up to find that his nose has disappeared from his face, and what’s more, it now outranks him. Sure enough, there was a monument to the nose at just the right place:
One of my favorite things is Yuriy Norshteyn’s Russian animated film Ёжик в тумане (Hedgehog in the Fog). It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of work: quiet, mysterious, profound, spooky. Hayao Miyazaki has called in an inspiration, and it won a 2003 Japanese award for the “Best Animated Film of All Time.” So, if that’s not enough to recommend it, I don’t know what would be.
When carving our Halloween pumpkins, I thought that some of the images from the film might be appropriately rendered in the medium. Here’s the result:
Of all the pumpkins I’ve made, this may not be the best carving, but it is my favorite.
This was the scene that I was copying:
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has been getting a lot of buzz (they’re even going to make an HBO miniseries from it). And for the first 83% of the book, I was on board, I was loving it. The premise (the dissolution of the Bigtree family of alligator wrestles following the death of their matriarch) is amazing; the writing is great (orate, lush, and surprising); the characters are intriguing. The rival Hell-themed amusement park is inspired in its details.
But there is a scene 83% of the way through the book that almost made me want to give up, and the book never recovered from this moment.
That scene is the rape of the 13-year-old narrator by the seedy “Obi-Wan” of the novel, the Bird Man. I understand that powerful literature deals with dramatic, often profoundly repulsive moments. These moments change the lives of their participants forever. But the scene seems to have very little emotional weight for Ava, the narrator / victim. Her takeaway is “Huh, he raped me, so maybe I shouldn’t trust him anymore.” But maybe that’s the point? That’s how a tough-as-nails 13-year-old from the Florida swamp would deal with the situation? Somehow, I don’t think so. The language that Russell uses for the scene is unpleasant — almost voyeuristic, and I didn’t want to read it.
And then, the plot of the novel goes to pieces. Ava’s familiar, a red baby alligator, who has been an important symbol through the whole novel, is sacrificed uselessly. The quest narrative that had been driving half the book peters into nothingness. Ava doesn’t complete her mission to save her sister; that’s done by accident, when her brother accidentally lands his sea plane and happens to find her.
There is no resolution for the story of the Bigtree clan; no monumental showdown between father and son, children and parents, bank and alligator farm, dream and reality.The denouement plays out too quickly, in just a few pages. The farm is lost, the girls dress up in school uniforms and wrestle no more alligators forever.
The resolution doesn’t seem motivated by the forgoing story. We were acquainted with exceptional characters; they never learn that they aren’t exceptional, but they become ordinary anyway. This basic plot movement, though dark and dispiriting, could be very powerful. And Russell doesn’t deliver on it at all. I can see how it is supposed to work from Ava’s victimization, sacrifice, and ineffectuality, but it just doesn’t come together.
Read Swamplandia! 83% of it is amazing. Stop before the end and imagine a better one.
Fed up with the puddles on Pike Street, a number of Lawrenceville, GA, citizens make their displeasure known:
At the far left, two men are dredging the puddle with a seine. In the middle, the ringleaders – Charles Mason and his son Clarence – are using the tried-and-true “firearm” method of fishing (e.g. they have shotguns). The most successful is the boy on the far right, who’s hauled up a respectable fish using watermelon as bait.
Source: Stancil, W. Dorsey. Vanishing Gwinnett. Lawrenceville, GA: Gwinnett Historical Society, 1984.
My very talented friend Cherry DelRosario made this poster for The Lime, our little one. I love it!
Here is Mr. and Mrs. Homer Tuggle’s epic collard plant, circa 1951:
If it’s just one giant collard leaf, is it still a “mess” of collards?
Source: Stancil, W. Dorsey. Vanishing Gwinnett. Lawrenceville, GA: Gwinnett Historical Society, 1984.
I was listening to Art Rosenbaum’s podcast, “Backroads and Banjos” today. He opens the 4/29/2009 show with this jingle recorded in 1926 by the Nu-Grape Twins.
Now I want to buy a Nu-Grape, which I’ve never before had in my life (though I used to get sick on Welch’s grape soda when I was a kid). Fortunately, it’s still for sale, in stores and online!
The Nu-Grape Twins apparently recorded another track, City Built of Mansions, that has no connection to Nu-Grape. Maybe it was the B-side? Source
I love that some drinks survive from the turn of the century: Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, of course, but also Royal Crown and Moxie and Nu-Grape and Cheerwine and Dr. Enuf and a dozen others. The patent medicine tradition is alive and well.
I just finished reading China Mieville’s The City and the City. It’s a wonderful book, and I was enjoying the heck out of it – until I was about halfway through and looked up the reviews on Amazon. Most were very positive, which corresponded with my experience. But there were a few recurring themes in the less positive reviews. First, that the central conceit (the mechanics and rules of mingled cities) was too frequently mentioned and too present. Second, that the ending fell flat. These weren’t spoilers in the traditional sense: I didn’t find out “whodunnit,” but they instantly colored my perception of the book.
As I kept reading, I started to find these elements. The divided nature of the two cities, the repeated descriptions of the mechanics of Breech and unseeing, did start to seem excessive, even though the plot revolves around them. And entering each plot twist, I wondered, “Is this the part where the book starts to fall flat?” And when I look back at the ending – yeah, it’s somehow disappointing.
Would I have experienced these same thoughts and disappointments if I hadn’t read the reviews? Maybe. But I wouldn’t have been awaiting them, hunting them. The reviews, in this case, spoiled the book without being spoilers.
Do you seek out and read Amazon reviews (or any reviews) of books before you read them? During? After? Do you frame your experience with the experience of others, or do you prefer to read with as little outside information as possible?
I find that the best books can’t be spoiled. Even if you know the twists and the foilbles, the book is strong enough to survive. I can’t imagine that knowing the ending of Bel Canto would have made it any less powerful.
There was a third theme in negative reviews, one that I didn’t find to be a problem, but that many others did. They complained that The City and the City was neither fantasy nor science fiction. The central conceit of the novel, that a large population could so willfully ignore half of its sensory experience, is implausible, but it isn’t impossible. Because the conceit isn’t magical or against the rules of nature, it isn’t fantasy; because it isn’t pendent on future technology, it isn’t science fiction. For me, learning that the conceit is based on psychology and metaphor, not something magical or technological, made it more powerful. It opens more thematic consequences. But a lot of reviews seemed to want to read science fiction—by-the-book science fiction—and they didn’t find it here.
The City and the City still feels like it belongs in the science fiction / fantasy section of the bookstore (and others must feel the same, since it won Locus and Hugo awards). It would be out of place as a mystery / suspense / thriller section. The City and the City is certainly speculative fiction, of the highest order: it hypothesizes an alternate reality and explores the consequence of that change (by comparison and contrast to our own).
The new city council of Lawrenceville, GA, is putting up new signs in the downtown square. No longer does one have to go hunting in poorly mimeographed books for local lore — it’s posted right at the place it happened. Love it! Here’s the story of Mrs. Philadelphia Winn Maltbie and her famous anti-liquor advocacy.
The Whacking Cane story is right beside McCray’s tavern, a local saloon and American-standard restaurant. Saloon -> pharmacy -> bar and grill. I do like McCray’s, though. Good burgers.
I’ve been reading a lot of folk song collections and essays on Appalachian music recently. Some are from the 1890’s to 1940’s, some are modern (or, at least, dating from the folk revival). The attitudes from the two time periods are very different, and, to me, quite striking.
Scholars of both time periods clearly care very much about the material — they have taken tremendous time and care to discover, collect, annotate, and compare ballads and folk songs. But it seems the earlier scholars are looking for artifacts of a previous civilization. They see in Appalachian music the fading remnants of some glorious English past. Part of this attitude is contempt for the contemporary singer of these songs, who is the unworthy inheritor and imperfect protector of the tradition.
Comments like these from Folk-Songs of the Southern Highlands (ed. Mellinger Edward Henry) from 1938 are representative of what I’ve read:
“[‘The Perjured Maid’], when I first saw it, impressed me as being what Child would call a ‘blurred, enfeebled, and disfigured form’ of something quite old and good.” (147)
“[‘My Pretty Little Pink’] is worthless as literature…. It is an extreme example of the patchwork of odds and ends so often found in these ‘love lorn songs.’ … It is really nothing at all but an illustration of the way minds of a certain sort work when they meet reverses in love; they think they are making poetry — instead they make up this sort of thing.” (262)
By contrast, the folk revival writers want material that is authentic to America. They have much more respect for the artistry and poetry of the American singer / interpreter of the material. Discovered artists are treated with reverence; many (deservedly) were plucked from mountain cabins and cotton fields and delivered to Carnegie Hall. They are perfect performers, and they need no antecedent.
For these later scholars, lyric coherence and stability is an argument against authenticity; the folk process hasn’t operated on songs that are too neat. A song written by “Anonymous” (or at least arranged by him / her) is better than a song with a noted author. Local variations are celebrated. There is no definitive version, nor definitive tune.
Personally, I agree with the latter scholars. I think the existing forms of Appalachian songs have artistic value in themselves, not just as clues to a “better” precursors. I like the disorder, remixing, and borrowing, and adaptation that created new songs out of European originals. Some of my favorite Appalachian songs aren’t descendants of Child ballads, nor are they even sensical, at least lyrically. The performer’s additional artistic choices — his selection of verses, his style of singing, his instrumental accompaniment (or lack thereof) — give additional coherence and meaning to the lyrics. And a looser overall structure doesn’t negate the impact of individual images and couplets, even if these couplets are used and re-used in different songs. It’s the sampling and name-checking of the 19th century.
Cecelia Conway in African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia makes a similar argument, though the text she chooses to champion is “puzzling, brief, and elliptical” (243). To call this song by Dink Roberts “cohesive” is a stretch:
Put poor John back in jail
Said, “I’d ask my captain for fifteen cents”
“Throw the time away”
“All I want is my .44 gun”
“Go out to Judge–”
“Go out to Judgement Day.”
Yeah, old John Hardy gonna be hung
Steel-driving man. (243)
Conway says “Some might interpret these songs as deteriorated or incoherent fragments of longer narrative songs about a public figure or historical event, by I do not. Dink consciously and intentionally performs these texts; his family enjoys them as they appear and considers them satisfying and complete, and, as I will show, their structure is meaningful and cohesive” (243). What follows are cultural and hermeneutic acrobatics to justify this claim. Some of her arguments are interesting, but still, the song really feels like assembled fragments. “John Hardy” and “John Henry” are completely different songs with antithetical protagonists: John Hardy is a desperate little murder, and John Henry is the “steel-driving man” that out-hammered the steam drill. In the lyrics that Conway quotes, they are conflated, and while I can’t call it a mistake, I can’t see the artistic reason for it, either.
I suppose the final decision rests with the listener; each makes his or her own determination about what’s meaningful and coherent.
Sometimes, a song isn’t about the words. “High ho, diddle dum day” and “King-kong kitchy ky-me-oh” are just as good for dancing as any other.