First of all, this film is not a remake of the 1970s Gene Wilder classic titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, for which I'm glad. Go ahead and call me a jerk, but even though that movie is fun, and that Oompa Loompa song sure is catchy, it just never really clicked with me. Tim Burton's version of Charlie is, well, Tim Burton's, and therefore is really its own thing. I think it follows Dahl's book pretty closely; it may vary from the source material in places (most movies do), but where it does, I don't remember. The last time I read the book I was 9. So it's been awhile.
Anyway, I think Tim Burton nailed it. The opening scenes in the Bucket home are spot-on, and the kid who plays Charlie is priceless. In fact, most of the kids in this are good, though I did find myself wishing for just a little bit more appalling brattiness out of Veruca Salt. Even though I think comparing this to the other film version is sort of pointless, I will say that the Oompa Loompas in this film kick the other ones' asses all the way to Oompa Land and back. For what it's worth.
Actually, as much as it may pain me to say this, the only problem I had with this was Depp's performance. I was glad to see that he wasn't Michael Jackson so much as a 19th century dandy underneath layers of cynical sadism and stiffness. At first, it worked for me, but after awhile, it got to be a bit much. Though the malicious smile that would play on his mouth when each of those awful children got what was coming to them was a nice touch. Ah, schadenfreude.
Anyway, I think it was worth sitting in a theater crammed with children on a Saturday afternoon to see this film, if for no other reason than, seriously, oh my God, the squirrels!
Anyway, in thinking about my list of books to read, I've decided that it's time to stop being daunted and start getting busy. And though I often say I'm going to do this sort of thing, I usually never get beyond the saying part. As such, I'm putting this out in public, and you can all be my witnesses -- I'm actually going to read these, really, I swear. After finishing each book on my list, I'll post a review which will probably be slightly irreverent, since irreverence is my style.
My list? Here it is. Books I either meant to read, or was supposed to read, or I skimmed parts of, or I read and forgot, or I merely pretended to read when I was assigned them in school:
-- Aeneid - VirgilThis is in no way an exhaustive list, and though I may add more in the future, I think this is enough to keep me busy for awhile. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do.
-- Inferno - Dante
-- Canzoniere - Petrarch
-- Troilus and Cressida - Shakespeare
-- Samson Agonistes - John Milton
-- Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
-- Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
-- Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
I'm going to be completely honest about something: reading these five reviews may be as close as I will ever get to any of these five books. But that's closer than I would have gotten if I hadn't put aside an hour to spend with the Book Review today. And, who knows, one of these books may bump me on the head and steal my heart the next time I enter a Borders or a Barnes and Noble. The Book Review has done its job, and the rest is up to me.
I am also always pleased when a book critic has a grand time tearing a new book to shreds, and that's exactly what Sven Birkerts does to Mark Helprin's Freddy and Fredericka in today's issue. This book is apparently a satirical fantasy about a naive member of the modern British royal family who is sent to America (specifically, New Jersey) to toughen up. Helprin is a unique word-wielder who in his long and unusual career has been an author of sensitive novels as well as a speechwriter for insensitive politicans. I've always found Helprin interesting, and Sven Birkerts funny condemnation of his new satire is so well-crafted it actually makes me want to read the book, perhaps just to see if I can make up my own quips about it. Here are the first two sentences of Birkerts' review:
Means too great directed at ends too little is called overkill -- as when a person grabs a volume of the Brittanica to go after a housefuly; or when Mark Helprin concocts a novel of near-Tolstoyan heft to showcase a string of groaningly bad jokes while working through old truisms about wealth not buying happiness and love conquering all. The fly, I suspect, will get away, but since Helprin is the author of seven previous (and widely reviewed) works of fiction, it's worth asking what gives.
The mood of well-crafted carnage in today's Book Review carries over to Henry Alford's short and enjoyably mean-spirited swipe at the new historical-mystery smash bestseller of the moment, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, a popular new riff on the Dracula legend, which is apparently just too cute:
When, after many other allusions to historians and historicism, Kostova introduced a character whose last name is Hristova, I was tempted to run out to a pharmacy for some antihristomine.
The bad review won't dent the popularity of this summer smash one bit (and, what the hell, I probably will eventually end up reading The Historian on one airplane trip or another). In fact, I think the reviewer is being too generous when he says this novel wants to do for historians what A. S. Byatt's Possession did for literary scholars. Actually, if the marketing campaign for this novel is any indication, it wants to do for Little, Brown's profits what The Da Vinci Code did for Doubleday's profits. It may even go ahead and do just that, bad review in the NYTBR or not.
If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.
Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...
Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.
1) It's poetry
2) It's on HBO
I don't think this show gets much attention from the academic poetry establishment, and I think this is a mistake. Yeah, I'll admit this show uses the term "poetry" loosely, and an average episode of this series offers maybe 50% hiphop styling, 35% attitude and about 15% poetry.
Okay, fine. That's still 15% more than anything else on TV, and I think it's great that HBO is willing to put this show up in place of the usual junk.
The serious poets of the world may not like this fact, but it is a fact: Def Poetry Jam is the closest thing to poetry many people will ever see. Stack every acclaimed literary journal published this year up to the ceiling, from Paris Review to Mississippi Review, and I think it's a safe bet that more people will see a single episode of Def Poetry Jam than will ever read all of these journals put together.
Season Five kicked off, as usual, with rapper Mos Def shouting out to Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn (hey, thanks, Mos, but really, you don't need to name-check your favorite blogger just to get a LitKicks review -- I'm happy to do it). Then came J. Ivy and Dahlak Braithwaite, two young poets whose performances signaled the show's continuing commitment to hiphop as poetry. The rhymes were strong but the words didn't linger much beyond the rhymes. Put a backing track by Timbaland or Just Blaze behind either one and you've got another song on the radio. This stuff is appealing enough to listen to, but I do want more originality and power out of the words themselves.
I like a poem with a specific subject, like Claudia Alick's angry bit about working 40 hard hours a week just to (barely) get by and pay her bills. Black Ice followed her with a convincing protest poem, "Imagine", and an 18 year old newbie named Gideon Grody-Patinkin was up next with an amusing rhyming piece about the discomfort of physical contact, handshakes and hugs.
At the half hour's halfway point, I was yearning for a seasoned poet with some performance experience (experience in spoken word makes a big difference). Avery Brooks showed the newcomers how it's done with "Purlie Variations", a powerful piece written by Ossie Davis. Next up was the first celebrity of the night, Fugee Lauryn Hill, who looked like Angela Davis and recited in a deep, somber voice.
I wasn't thrilled by Lauryn Hill, who seemed to be trying to look and sound like a Def Poet. I was more impresseed by Rachel McKibbens' affecting piece about showing up at her daughter's school and being judged for her tattoos and clothes. This was one of my two favorite performances of the show, and Dave Chappelle's closer was the other. This was another celebrity drop-in, but where Lauryn Hill seemed to be trying to bend her style to fit in at a poetry reading, Dave Chappelle simply threw away the formula and bent the poetry reading to fit what he's best at. His first poem was a really funny bit titled "Fuck Ashton Kutcher". I don't think Dave Chappelle is a poet, but he did what I want a poet to do -- he expressed his own individuality and followed no formula but his own.
The first episode of the fifth season of Def Poetry Jam started slow but ended strong, in my humble opinion. If you caught this show, I'd love to hear what you think.
I'm not sure if I see Dave Chapelle as a poet, and in the past I've been known to complain about comedians muscling in on the spoken-word scene (mainly because poetry audiences always love them, and they usually blow non-comedian poets like me off the stage). Dave Chappelle is a special case, though, since he's just returning from his Rimbaud-like trip to Africa (okay, actually I have no idea if his trip to Africa was anything like Rimbaud's, but I am looking for poetry connections here) and will probably have some interesting things to say.
Remember, we're kicking off a weekly tradition of reviewing Def Poetry Jam episodes here on LitKicks, so if you can get to a TV with HBO on Friday night at 11:30 pm or Saturday morning at 1 am, check this show out, and drop by here the next day to share your impressions with us.
A couple of months ago my 14-year-old son asked me about the Armenian genocide that took place during the first World War. He was interested because of the band System of a Down, a really good thrash-metal outfit that often uses Middle Eastern musical themes and sings some songs about the Armenian people and their history (it's amazing what a kid can learn from a good metal band).
I tried to find a good book, and I ended up ordering a first-person memoir called "Vergeen". This story of a young teenage girl living through the total destruction of her family and community is in many ways a "Diary of Anne Frank" of the Armenian holocaust, the main difference being that Vergeen Meghrouni lived to tell the tale.
As in the Nazi massacre of the Jews and the Rwandan massacre of the Tutsis, the Armenians were systematically segregated, dehumanized, humiliated and finally destroyed by their own government, the Ottomans of Turkey. Vergeen (the name is translated as Virginia) is 13 years old when her entire village is ordered to give up everything they own and walk across the desert to Syria. Vergeen watches as every member of her family is killed. The last to die is her brave mother, who put Vergeen's needs first and is the real hero of this story.
Vergeen survives by attaching herself to a Bedouin family, but she is brutally raped by the head of the family. The author is not a professional writer, and when she describes the rape with an aching and inarticulate "Oh GOD" her pain and anger are easy to feel.
Why isn't this book better known? The Armenian holocaust took at least 1.5 million lives, but it's somehow remained a quiet holocaust. I respect the band System of a Down for spreading awareness of this forgotten piece of world history.
It's weird how some historical periods are well-represented by books, while others aren't. I think there are about 1,473,629 World War II books published each year, and approximately 12 about World War I. Why is this? I guess it's the same reason there are 2,337,810 books published each year about the Civil War and 3 about the American Revolution. And there has never been a book published about the Spanish-American War.
Okay, I'm exaggerating, and I made up these numbers. But I think my point stands: there are big incidents in world history that the publishing industry doesn't cover. I don't think there's any censorship going on here; the major publishers simply follow successful formulas. The Civil War sells, and so do D-Day, Anne Frank and Iwo Jima. Armenia? Not a proven formula.
"Vergeen" is published by a small company called Atmus Press, and you're not likely to find it in your local bookstore unless you specifically order it. I recommend doing so, or buying it on Amazon. "Vergeen" offers a unique first-person story you won't forget.
There are many reasons to dislike this pillar of our literary establishment, this modern giant. He has been the epitome of cozy, smug success since his career began in the early 60s. Just look at the smarmy smile on any of his 150 or so book jacket photos. This is a writer who embraces the culture of upper class suburbia, a writer who would have sneered at his peers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, a writer whose stories from the 1960s poked mean fun at hippies and civil rights activists (just read his excellent collection Too Far To Go to find some surprisingly cynical jabs at Martin Luther King, published when King was still alive and not yet a saint).
In fact, John Updike is so easy to hate that I can't even find an original way to do this; Nicholson Baker devoted an entire, hilarious book U and I to his own jealous obsession with this author.
There's only one problem: I love John Updike. I recently picked up one of his recent and less successful books, Gertrude and Claudius, which was remaindered for five bucks at Barnes and Noble. This is a modern retelling of the Hamlet legend, based on Shakespeare as well as earlier Danish sources, that focuses on the illicit love affair between Hamlet's mother and uncle. I picked it up because I'm a bit of a Hamlet buff, and maybe even because I liked the idea of reading an Updike failure, a late-career book that got no media attention and didn't sell.
Well, guess what? I love this damn book. It's up there with my favorite Updikes (among them the aforementioned Too Far to Go, Couples, Bech: A Book, and many more I'm embarrassed to admit I've read).
I'm not surprised the book didn't sell or get good reviews, because the book's ambition is to approach Shakespeare's sacred territory and compete on Shakespearean terms. The book is written in prose, not verse, and yet the sentences certainly do reach, quite self-consciously, for the gorgeous cadences of iambic rhythm. This is a grand move on the author's part, equivalent to a pat on his own back. But once you look past the nerviness of this self-comparison, what remains is a book that works, a story with a peculiar angle that strikes true in many ways.
Because John Updike is primarily an author of relationship stories, and because these relationships usually involve extra-marital affairs, it is no surprise that the author identifies deeply with Queen Gertrude as she runs from her husband into the arms of his treacherous brother. I am still in the middle of the book, so I can't comment on the plot as a whole. But, sentence by sentence, this book is a thrill.
Here's one sentence, describing the Queen: "Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open." Lines like this make me realize it may be time for me to let go of my natural inclination to dislike this author, and accept the fact that he is one of the few novelists who can write as well as one of my lifelong literary role models. So, today I let go of the fight and admit what I've known all along: John Updike is the Henry James of our time, an absolute master of the private thought publicly expressed, and a writer who will grace the bookshelves of eternity.
What do you think about John Updike?
I think it's great that Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume 1" was nominated for a National Book Award, listed by the New York Times as one of the top five books of 2004, and awarded many other honors. In fact, the old guy has written an amazingly breezy, funny and original book, and he deserves the recognition.
But I'm a little annoyed when I read reviews depicting this book as Dylan's long-awaited "true story". Sure, the book is billed as an autobiography, but Bob Dylan has been hiding behind masks longer than the four members of KISS put together, and I find it hard to believe he's dropped all of them now.
Deception, identity and disguise is absolutely central to the work of Bob Dylan, who has been in the course of his career an earnest protest singer, an amphetamine-popping rock star, a country-western refugee, a glitter-suited superstar, a born-again Christian, a sloppy has-been drunk, a mellowed-out jamster and a resurgent elder statesman of rock. It's exactly this neverending game of hide-and-seek that makes his work so compelling to his fans -- you never know where he'll jump out at you from next, always with the straightest of faces. But you can't become a completely different artist every three years and then suddenly drop the artifice and tell the truth. For the artist currently known as Bob Dylan, artifice is truer than truth, and this is how it must be.
I think they do. Scarred by commercialism and marred by cliche, the best authors of the 50's, 60's and 70's underground are still relevant. The literary experiments that beatnik authors were famous for -- loud poetry readings, collaborative works, marathon sessions of deranged composition -- are still considered avant-garde today. And the themes of the Cold War/Vietnam era -- modernity, ecology, violence, paranoia and war -- certainly resonate today.
Among the hundreds of writers and poets who could have been considered part of the Beat Generation or any of its offshoots, a tiny few are important enough to be considered timeless. I thought I'd spend today's column talking about new posthumous releases from two of them.
The popularity of Charles Bukowski today, a decade after his death, is a wonderful enigma. No market research in the world could have ever chosen him as an American idol. He was an ugly, middle-aged former post office employee when he began writing newspaper columns in the late 60's. His writing style was flat and artless, but he had boundless charm, and his columns always told the truth.