Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.
I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.
5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.
I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.
The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist ...
"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it." -Vladimir Nabokov
There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.
Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.
I've noticed something strange when talking to friends and relatives and neighbors about politics, or about the future of the world. Many people seem to believe that ultimate evil is a real and powerful force in our lives today. They believe that this evil threatens our families, our society and our nation, and they see it as our responsibility to prepare to fight this evil to the death.
Evil, according to this notion, is an eternal force, absolute and self-sufficient. It is beyond reason or negotiation; it can only be defeated for a generation, after which it will rise again, ready for another battle. We train ourselves for this recurring combat by consuming pop-culture representations of the enemy we must eventually fight: Darth Vader, Voldemort, the White Witch. These mythical creatures are widely understood to have direct correspondents in international history and politics: imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Red China, Soviet Russia, Al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran.
I have never believed in the existence of ultimate evil, and I suppose this helps explain why I disagree so often with people I talk to about current politics. I was recently struck by the coincidence of two people I was talking with in two separate conversations -- both of them progressive liberals, smart and well-informed -- pointedly declaring to me that they are not pacifists. This is apparently a badge of honor for both of them, or perhaps it's more precisely an insignia of their membership in the army of good vs. evil. When the dark lord shows his face, I will be ready to fight. An awareness of quasi-mythical evil in the dark corners of the world also seems, unfortunately, to be present in nearly every American politician's foreign policy platform.
It must be the philosopher's job today to examine this kind of groupthink critically, and to help us reach a level of understanding that is less childish, less destructive, less obviously cartoonish. This is more vital than ever today, since modern weaponry has made the stakes for war and peace so high, and since cross-cultural paranoia appears to be currently at a hysterical peak.
(April Rose Schneider's first Litkicks article was about nearly-forgotten 1960s novelist Richard Farina. Here, she analyzes the poetic sensibility of a not-forgotten but barely appreciated rock drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush. Enjoy! -- Levi)
Rock and Roll lyrics are generally anything but artful. Flimsy as a piece of tissue in a tornado, the words to most pop or rock songs are best suited for head scratching. Remember "Louie, Louie", first released in 1963?
Action movies and hyperarticulate idea movies don’t usually go hand in hand. So when Inception blasted onto screens last summer, its unholy marriage of genres at least partly explains why it was accompanied by a white hot publicity streak. Would Chris Nolan forge a bridge between Charlie Kaufman, king of idea-filled films such as Being John Malkovich, and Michael Bay, master of summer popcorn action fare? And could that bastard child possibly be any good as a script? After several reads of Nolan’s screenplay, my unequivocal answer is yes. And the more I dig into this complex script, the more enthusiastic I get. What makes Inception such a daring and well-executed juggling act? And how does Nolan make it all work?
As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.
Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:
A book called Why Are Christians Conservative? would be a great idea, but it appears that the book called Why Are Jews Liberals? already exists, the latest work by neo-conservative Norman Podhoretz, who urges his people in the USA to abandon their Democratic party bias and join him on the gung-ho Republican side. Podhoretz's book is reviewed by his peer intellectual Leon Wieseltier, who commandingly rejects Podhoretz's logic in one of the liveliest articles I've seen in this publication this year.
Podhoretz, Wieseltier claims, has become solipsistic in his assumption of conservative values. Economics and family-values hedging aside, the core argument for a Jewish leap to the right wing remains what it always was: the idea that Israel and USA have a common interest in permanent unilateral military domination of the Middle East -- a sad position that Republicans tend to support more than Democrats. I could barely stop nodding my head happily up and down as Wieseltier took this position apart, reminding those who apparently still do not understand this that a difficult peace, not a glorious holy war, is the only hope worth pursuing in the Middle East.
I haven't always loved Wieseltier's articles in the Book Review, but this is a strong performance, and his high-pitched prose is a pleasure to read. Today's cover article begins with a note of Talmudic grandeur:
"There are four types of people," teaches an ancient rabbinical text. "The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours -- this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine -- this is a boor. What is mine is yours — a saint. What is yours is mine — a villain."
Brothers and Sisters, is this liberal or conservative?
He maintains the pitch, and the article soars. There are well-aimed personal jabs:
In the absence of arguments, Podhoretz offers memories. "Why Are Jews Liberals?" is yet another one of his autobiographies; his life is a gift that keeps on giving.
There are even good jokes:
There was a basis in reality for the Jewish hope in a liberalizing society and a secularizing culture. What else should the Jews of modernity have done -- chanted the Psalms and waited for Reagan?
My fellow NYTBR critic Jim Sleeper has a less positive opinion of Wiesltier's performance over at the Talking Points Memo Cafe. Sleeper finds in Wieseltier a carpetbagging liberal, crawling back to the winning side after standing with George W. Bush in support of the Iraq War in 2003. I disagree with Sleeper's emphasis here: yes, Wieseltier has to take his lumps for eagerly championing the Iraq invasion. But if he was wrong then, he may be right now, and, by god, doesn't everybody have a right to smarten up?
But then Jim Sleeper's piece is also lively, and manages to puncture Wieseltier's balloon once or twice, as when he casts a doubting look on the critic's rabbinical tone:
Much though I share his disdain for Podhoretz's tribal reductions of Judaism, Wieseltier's frequent, weird displays of religiosity make me wonder if Madonna came to sit at his feet while on her way to the Kabbalah.
And really, that's all I want in a good Book Review article (or a good Talking Points Memo refutation). I just want a little wit, and a strong opinion every now and then. Podhoretz's book looks like a loser, but it has already stirred up some good conversation.
I love to read about politics and history, but always prefer books filled with the raw stuff -- facts, details -- over argument and commentary. It's interesting to note that New York Times Book Review chief Sam Tanenhaus has also just published a book that belongs on the same shelf as Podhoretz's, though it appears to reach conclusions closer to Wieseltier's. I'm guessing it won't be reviewed in these pages, but the book is called The Death of Conservatism, and it's worth a look if you find this type of argument interesting.
But if, like me, you prefer the raw stuff, you may be drawn to Nicholas Thompson's The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan and the History of the Cold War, here reviewed by Mark Atwood Lawrence. The book's author is the grandson of the so-called "hawk", Paul Nitze, who argued (against the advice of George Kennan) for an aggressive military response to Stalin in the Cold War, and this relationship promises a unique angle on an important period in our recent past. I would like to read this book, though I may never find the time.
There are several highly negative reviews in this NYTBR, but not all are as convincing as Wieseltier's. B. R. Myers pans The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-Yong, a South Korean writer who, I understand, spent time in a North Korean prison and is currently very popular in his own land. I understand Myers' objections to the book's apparently confusing chronological approach and sloppy use of language. But I wish this review gave me a better sense of how this book has been received in Korea, and I also sense insular political overtones to this review, involving sympathies that may or may not stand with the rigid regime of North Korea, that I simply don't understand. I was already interested in hearing more about this book (which is being serialized online by its publisher) and I think I'll look a little further before I accept Myers' rejection of the work's value.
Then, Lev Grossman's The Magicians gets rough treatment at the hands of Michael Agger. I've always found Lev Grossman's pop-culture-minded fictional endeavors weak myself, but Agger's superficial reasons for disliking The Magicians are highly off-putting:
Perhaps a fantasy novel meant for adults can't help being a strange mess of effects. It’s similar to inviting everyone to a rave for your 40th-birthday party. Sounds like fun, but aren’t we a little old for this?
Well no, actually. As far as I'm concerned, if we're talking about the possibilities of literature, nobody is ever too old for anything.
Florida author and blogger Bill Ectric is one of my very favorites among the indie writers I've met here on Literary Kicks. He and I first bonded many years ago over our mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau, and he made a big showing in our 2004 collection Action Poetry. His playful intellect and sweetly philosophical frame of mind make him more interesting, in my opinion, that most of the mainstream authors crowding our bookstores these days, though his work does not fit neatly into any category (is it comedy? speculative fiction? boys adventure? Nobody knows for sure).
Tamper is Bill Ectric's most cohesive novel so far. It opens in a small town in a past golden age, as two boys take pictures in the pitch blackness of an old abandoned church with a clunky ancient 35mm camera and ponder the mysterious orbs that bloom in the resulting photographs. What do you see when you take pictures in the dark? That's the kind of question that absorbs the mind of a writer like Bill Ectric. Tamper evolves into a classic good-time mystery/adventure that explores the legend of Amazing Stories writer Richard Shaver, and somehow ends with a printed diagram of a folded-paper fortune teller, the kind I remember playing with as a kid. Ambiguity? Sure. I decided to ask Bill five questions about his new novel, and the results are below.
Levi: I've been enjoying your work for a while now, but your new novel Tamper appears to be your most ambitious and focused work to date. Can you talk about your evolution as a writer, and why you wrote this particular book at this particular time?
Bill: I’ve been writing Tamper off and on for almost three years. I started having crystal-clear dreams and visions when I stopped drinking three years ago. Looking back, it seems like I placed my writing life "on hold" upon joining the Navy in the seventies, and only picked it up again years later when I discovered Literary Kicks in the nineties. While writing Tamper, I got in touch with feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and enchantment that I hadn't felt since childhood.
More to the point is why I was able to finish writing this particular book at this particular time. It’s because of the numerous books I’ve read and studied, which equipped me with the tools I needed for the novel I wanted to write. Just to name a few: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, who talks about the "dazzlement" of discovering hidden truths in one’s own writing (thanks to Jamelah Earle for bringing Kundera to my attention), and books by writers I identified with because their childhood memories seemed as magical as mine, like Swann’s Way by Proust and Dr. Sax by Kerouac.
Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS used the concept of an "influencing machine" -- a term coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk to describe a common trait among schizophrenics who think that some type of machine is trying to control them. Which is what many people theorize was happening to Richard Shaver, the pulp science fiction writer, who claimed that the stuff he wrote in Amazing Stories magazine was true! The question in VALIS, of course, is whether or not the main character is crazy, or is a satellite in outer space beaming signals to his brain, or is God speaking to him, or is the satellite and God one in the same? And does it make any difference?
Levi: Tamper seems to deal with the paranormal, and yet is highly grounded in real life. Do you seriously believe in supernatural influences in our life, or are you just screwing around with the theme and having fun?
Bill: I seriously believe that magic and science are both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look too close, it diverges again.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Back in the 1600s, if you said “some day men will fashion a small moon from the Earth’s metallic elements and hurl it into the heavens, giving us power to direct thoughts from our brains to our fingertips and out to people miles away” there would have been cries of, “Witchcraft!” but I’m simply describing satellites and cell phones. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’m leaning more toward science, but I should add that there have been times when my mother could sense that a family member was having some kind of problem or illness, which turned out to be true, and sometimes it was downright uncanny! Or, maybe you’ve heard about the well-documented out-of-body experience of Pam Reynolds, who nearly died in surgery in 1991. Like in many near-death experiences, she said she looked down at her own body on the operating table, surrounded by the medical team, but the fascinating part is, she described several things that she couldn’t possibly have known unless her astral experience was real!
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.
I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in 1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To convey the fun of it.
Levi: Does the fictional town of Hansburg, Virginia correspond to a real place? Can you talk about the places in this book and what they mean to you in real life?
Bill: Oh, for sure, I based Hansburg very much on the town in Virginia where I was born and raised, called Christiansburg. It started as a settlement called “Hans Meadow” in the 1700s. Later, they changed the name to Christiansburg. A small, idyllic town like in the old television shows, Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith or that Twilight Zone episode where Gig Young tries to revisit his childhood. Seventy-five percent of everything in Tamper really happened, but of course, I embellished parts of it. The treasure hunt, the layout of the streets, the bag of bones, Main Street, the woods, racing sleds and bicycles downhill, are all based in reality.
Besides the events in my hometown, some of the other stuff is based on real experience too. For example, I really did sit on a beach under the night stars in Spain, with some friends, looking out at the Rock of Gibralter, listening to "Four Cornered Room" by WAR on a small, battery operated cassette tape player, and it seemed almost transcendental at the time.
Levi: How do you plan to market and sell this novel? Do you enjoy being an indie writer, and do you have advice for other indie writers?
Bill: I would prefer that a major publisher picked up my book and promoted it to the masses. There is one thing I like about being an indie, which is the realization that just because a book is supposedly finished, that doesn’t mean I can’t go back and fix things. I learned by trial and error on my first two books, and I used to stress out, thinking, "What if I release a book that’s not good enough?" I either put the book out too soon and grieved over the errors, or toiled endlessly for perfection. Partly, it was not being able to afford a second edition with some of those high-priced, so-called self-publishing companies. So, I founded Surtsey Publishing, and I use CreateSpace for print-on-demand, and it’s no longer a problem. Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere with revisions. At some point, you have to let it go. I don’t foresee any revisions on Tamper -- it’s nearly perfect. But I’m going to combine the short stories from my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, into one volume, re-release them on Surtsey with some killer revisions! Anyone who has already purchased one of those books will get a chance to buy the new edition at the greatly reduced price, or maybe even get a free copy for a limited time. I haven’t worked out the details yet. But anyone interested in reading Tamper need not worry -- it’s not going to change.
As for marketing, there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly from Cory Doctorow, about making books available online for free. Doctorow says that making his books available free online has not hurt his book sales. I’m not quite that adventurous yet, so I’m going to make the first three chapters of Tamper available on the internet.
I’ve got two book signings lined up here in Jacksonville, Florida so far, where I’ll read excerpts from the book and talk about it.
I plan to use blog ads to target the various types of readers who I believe the novel will appeal to. These include, on one hand, the pulp science fiction fans and the Forteans, folks who know that Richard Shaver was an actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s. People who like offbeat historical fiction. My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but I wasn’t sure how far I should go, so I invented Olsen Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot. I also think Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James. And books about the intersection of mysticism and science, like Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller (thanks to Jessa Crispin for recommending that one on her blog).
Levi: Many blogs such as Largehearted Boy and Paper Cuts ask writers what music they listened to while they wrote their latest books. Instead, I'd like to ask you a better question: what foods did you eat while you wrote this book?
Bill: I fell in love with olive oil and feta cheese about three years ago. I went for weeks at a time eating nothing but a big salad every day, with all kinds of fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese, and later in the evening, drinking many cups of black coffee, staying up all night. But from time to time, maybe to compensate for the lack of booze, I went on binges in which I ate big bowls of cereal with milk, bananas, raisins, peanut butter, and ice cream piled on it. I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people. I won’t even go into the prescription drugs I eat.
For more about Ectric's novel go here, or check out Bill's website.
1. How delightful to learn that James Joyce may have invented the word 'blog' during a typical conversational ramble in Finnegans Wake! Here it is in context:
Now from Gunner Shotland to Guinness Scenography. Come to the ballay at the Tailors' Hall. We mean to be mellay on the Mailers' Mall. And leap, rink and make follay till the Gaelers' Gall. Awake ! Come, a wake ! Every old skin in the leather world, infect the whole stock company of the old house of the Leaking Barrel, was thomistically drunk, two by two, lairking o' tootlers with tombours a'beggars, the blog and turfs and the brandywine bankrompers, trou Normend fashion, I have been told down to the bank lean clorks? Some nasty blunt clubs were being operated after the tradition of a wellesleyan bottle riot act and a few plates were being shied about and tumblers bearing traces of fresh porter rolling around, independent of that, for the ehren of Fyn's Insul, and then followed that wapping breakfast at the Heaven and Covenant, with Rodey O'echolowing how his breadcost on the voters would be a comeback for e'er a one, like the depredations of Scandalknivery, in and on usedtowobble sloops off cloasts, eh? Would that be a talltale too? This was the grandsire Orther. This was his innwhite horse. Sip?
Enough puns for you there? I assume that "blog" is a play on "bog" (and in fact the word "blog" has always seemed to carry an appealing sort of Joycean phlegmatic physicality). Pictured above: an Irish peat bog.
There’s a certain kind of author whose cool sneaks up on one so quietly, hastily, and tardily that the only legitimate response for the (otherwise) well-read savant may be to reject this problematic writer, now the ne plus ultra of the literary set, out of hand.
If you’ve been "in" on said raconteur from their fledgling steps into the raw publishing world, it's a different tale. When one's own anointed few break out to the big time, it's like hitting the trifecta on Derby Day. "Ah, yes," you airily proclaim, "I’ve been reading Ian McEwan since The Cement Garden." ("Say what?" retorts the late-to-the-party Atonement fan.) Or "Yes, yes, I saw the NYTBR, but haven’t you read Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist? But you must. It was clear way back when that with a quick wit like that, he’d soon be on to ever more dazzling things."