Sunday, March 29, 2015

Parenting? What's parenting?

"Hahaha, oh, cousin, we're basically living in an apocalypse! Hahaha!"

The Secret Garden feels like it's got a hell of a lot more lessons for adults than it does for children. It seems to want to teach kids that it's good to explore and play and exercise. It seems to want to teach parents that they're fucking awful and their children run wild and believe in fairies and magic because they've got nothing else guiding them through life.

I had seen the movie but never read The Secret Garden before this week; it makes Mary's parents and Mr. Craven a lot more sympathetic than they are in the book while also making Mary and Colin out to be much bigger assholes than they actually are.

Mary and Colin are great characters, they just both start as scared, reactionary children. The Garden draws them out of their adult-imposed cages and they get to be free and happy and have some agency for once in their fucking lives. That's a really interesting contrast, by the way; both children are used to getting their way in a way that means essentially nothing by ordering around the hired help, but when they do work with their hands and make an actual effort at changing something they grow and change for the first times in their lives.

The language surrounding the Garden is marvelous, by the way. As are the descriptions of Dickon, a poor boy who tames animals and is instrumental in the taming of Colin and Mary. There's a wonderful, sweet magic in the beauty of the garden and the calm control of Dickon - that sweet magic is nearly destroyed when it is described overtly as magic by Colin as he attempts to heal himself; I think if I ever chose to read this book to my kids I might do some slight rewriting so that the wonder of these scenes speaks for itself instead of getting spelled out and thereby breaking its own spell.

Overall I enjoyed this book by I was somewhat frustrated by its flaws, which were so glaring in comparison to the rest of the story.

     - Alli

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. Amazon Publishing. Seattle: Washington. 1911.

A warm family in a cold world

This book took a little while to get into (the first 15 pages or so were hard to push through for me) but once I was involved with the story I was glad that I'd made the effort.

Wole Soyinka does an amazing job of regressing the reader to his childish viewpoint while still telling his story in a way that adults can understand. As the book moves through itself, and as the narrator ages, the memoir moves from a more febrile, magical perspective to a touching recollection of his family during a very frightening time.

I loved experiencing the percolation of knowledge through the narrator as he grew up and began to recognize a world beyond the walls of his family compound and indeed beyond the borders of his country.

Every person described is interesting and complete and touching, even if they are described with dislike they're granted their humanity and the understanding that maybe they're an okay person, just someone with different motivations.

The book is transporting, the language is lush and beautiful and makes you see the streets where Wole walked as a child, and hear the sizzle of cooking and smell the rich foods he so desperately wanted to scrounge from the family pantry. It's a very sensory book for the first two thirds of the story, and then becomes a very intellectual book as Wole the baby becomes Wole the boy and starts to participate in the various intrigues and uprisings around him.

The tale of the Nigerian Women's Movement from this unique perspective is intensely moving and makes you want to charge up and take political actions of your own - makes you want to be something bigger and wholer than you are now.

     - Alli

Soyinka, Wole. Aké: the years of childhood. Vintage International. New York: New York.
     1989. (1981.)

Giants, supermodels, and fun, oh my!

I don't read much in the crime or mystery genres but JK Rowling's first outing as Robert Galbraith is making me reconsider that decision. The Cuckoo's Calling was tremendously fun to read but more nuanced than I'd expected and I thoroughly enjoyed dedicating my Saturday to getting through this book.

Cormoran Strike and Robin are very well constructed characters (the best of a good bunch of characters filling up the story) and their relationship is adorable and fun from the their first appearances all the way to the final page.

My sister has informed me that there's a second Cormoran Strike novel and I'm stoked because the biggest mystery of this first book wasn't what Strike was investigating but the detective himself. Seeing him slowly revealed and rounded out as the story progressed was intensely satisfying and a great deal of fun but now that I know more about him I want a chance to do some more admiring of the PI at work.

The story itself is fairly unremarkable so far as detective novels go; there are plenty of red herrings and a twist at the end but I guess those are only what I expected. What's great is the way that you're kept guessing constantly and examining the strange, busy, isolating life that the subject of the mystery lived; comparing notes with Cormoran and Robin as they try to reconcile conflicting reports and get to the bottom of the problem at hand is fun and tantalizing as it draws the reader in, skillfully encouraging you to form and then discard your own conclusions as the tale progresses.

So far its been three days and I've managed to keep myself from buying a copy of the next Galbraith novel, but I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out. I had a fantastic time with this book and am very excited to see more of this side of Rowling's writing.

     - Alli

Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo's Calling. Mulholland Books. New York: New York. 2013.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Movies always leave out the best parts

I remember being terrified of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland as a child - I rode it before I'd seen the movie, and then once I'd seen the movie I was REALLY terrified of weasels. I got over it and have seen the Disney film a few times, and once (sleep-deprived at 4AM and looking for anything to numb the insomnia) I watched a bizarre, frightening, confusing version of the story done by Terry Jones and what must have been a metric fuckton of acid.

But I'd never read the book until this week and now I'm not at all frightened by any of it, I'm simply charmed by the story and really curious as to why film interpretations of children's books leave out the best and most magical parts.

Everything I've seen has focused on horrible Mister Toad and ignored the sweet friendship of Ratty and Mole. Otter has never gotten his due on screen (that I've seen) and there are a dozen wonderful, not totally lucid, little side-stories that are wonderful to read but get skipped over in favor of motor-cars and Toad dressed as a washerwoman.

This is a lovely, serene little book and I wish I'd read it sooner. If I have kids I'm sure I'll be reading it to them because it's full of delightful little songs and descriptions of cozy holes and spooky woods without being idiotic or insipid the way that lots of children's novels can be.

Though perhaps calling this book a novel is misleading - it seems more like an aggregate of short stories interspersed with chapters of a novella. Mr. Toad's escapades ARE the main action, the greater part of the book, and that's why they've gotten so much attention, but the certainly aren't the best part of the book.

"Piper at the Gates of Dawn" is a fluffy little short story about a lost child and a loving benefactor that made me weep as I read and has established itself in my mind one of the most touching stories of familial love and care that I will ever read. Mole's longing for his hole, Ratty's encounter with a seafaring rat, and stumbling upon Mr. Badger's house in the wild wood are all fantastic moments that are overlooked in a lot of retellings. Not only do they make the book worth reading even if you HAVE seen the movie, it's moments like these that make the book worth reading at all.

     - Alli

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. Amazon Kindle. Seattle: Washington. 1908.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Seriously, the gods kind of suck

I read Antigone in high school but somehow missed out on the rest of the Oedipus Trilogy until this week. I found all of the plays fascinating, and all of them were simple and arresting reads, but holy shit are the pantheon of Greek gods assholes.

I guess since the morality of the time was based around a system of fate, where sometimes you were up and sometimes you were down, the audiences of the era wouldn't be as put off by the idea that the most powerful beings in the universe were essentially saying "fuck this dude in particular, but everyone else is cool."

Oedipus Rex sets up the action - the titular character has already killed his dad and fucked his mom so the whole of the play is based on him discovering this fact. There's some great foreshadowing as he unwittingly curses his own head and it's really moving when he realizes exactly how much he's screwed himself over.

Oedipus at Colonus is the play that I knew the least about but found the most interesting - it completely revolves around the concept of the unsinning sinner, one who has done terrible things that, were they done by ANYONE else, would not be unforgivable but who never intended to do unforgivable things. Antigone is sympathetic in this play more than she is in the one that bears her name but it sets her up as a lady who gets things done and takes no shit, a theme that is later expanded upon. I am a bit perplexed by the changes in narrative - it seems like a lot of the things that happened in the first play are twisted in the second; at the end of Oedipus Rex I thought that Oedipus willingly left and beggared himself but in Oedipus at Colonus he accuses both Creon and Polynieces of banishing him and putting him in beggar's weeds. It seems like, since neither of them were the ones in the throne at the time, they couldn't have really been responsible. There are a couple of other deviations that are similar, but slighter, throughout the story.

Antigone is the story of a lady who is thoroughly sick of everyone's shit. I can't recommend it enough. Creon really shows himself to be an asshole, more so than in the other plays, and Antigone not only calls him on it but uses his own actions to destroy his life. It kicks ass and I approve.

     - Alli

Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. Tans. F. Storr. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: Massachusetts. 1912.
Sophocles. Oedipus at Colonus. Tans. F. Storr. Harvard University Press. Cambridge:
     Massachusetts. 1912. 
Sophocles. Antigone. Tans. F. Storr. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: Massachusetts. 1912.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Homoeroticism and racism abound

(Joe's Response: Oh well, let's go murder some brown people instead of talking about it.)

I only knew the name Zane Grey in association with westerns, so when I downloaded The Spirit of the Border on my Kindle I was expecting cowboys and maybe cattle rustlers (and yes, probably some offensive stuff about Native Americans). What I got was a book that was written by an erection for manifest destiny about racists with Disney princess hair attempting genocide in their spare time.

I've had some trouble extracting any kind of moral from this story. Clearly Grey is critical of genocide - which is always a plus - and makes sure to mention the abused Native Americans in his foreword, but only after he's talked about how this wouldn't be the great, big 'Murica we all know without men like Wetzel to murder those Native Americans. The story is just as undecided as the foreword: it seems to suggest that missionaries are sort of being dicks for trying to convert people (which I can get behind), but it also suggests that trying to convert Native Americans is a loser's game because savage is as savage does (which I can't get behind and is terrible), and also makes a point at the very end that humans are all different and people of all different races can be moral or immoral no matter how they were raised.

I just kind of can't get around the fact that everyone in this book is terrible. Everyone's awful and I can't fucking hang and get into the seriously awful bits so I'm just going to focus on the seriously (and I really have a lot of questions) homosexual bits.

Let's get this right out there: I just don't know what I'm looking at. I'm not trying to be insulting, I don't see homoeroticism in fiction as a bad thing, I'm just perplexed. The Spirit of the Border is chock-full of homosocial relationships and masculine admiration for masculinity. Zane Grey writes these dudes the way that Walt Whitman would if he was typing with one hand instead of carefully choosing his words. The weddings and heterosexual relationships in the book are less necessary to the story than the weddings at the end of The Importance of Being Earnest. I've done a preliminary search that doesn't turn up much queer theory commentary on Grey, but I think that may be because westerns aren't thought of as literary enough to merit that critical lens. The homosocial element here is MUCH more evident and more roundly discussed than anything you'll see between Sherlock and Watson but nobody seems to be suggesting that, yeah, these dudes probably want to bone.

Which it too bad, because it might make their utter disregard for women as anything beyond objects to be protected slightly more palatable. (Though not their desire to solve all their problems by killing non-whites: nothing could make that an easier pill to swallow.)

In short, I think this book has scared me off reading Grey for the foreseeable future. His descriptions of nature are charming but I don't really think that's enough to make up for the constant grimaces I had on my face when I was reading about missionaries, women, Native Americans, or basically anything else in the book.

     - Alli

Grey, Zane. The Spirit of the Border. Amazon Kindle Books. Seattle: Washington. 1906.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I drank what?

The problem with reading really bitchin-awesome philosophy as an adult is that you probably already know pretty much what's going on in the bitchin-awesome philosophy and therefore miss out on having your mind blown by the ancients.

That being said, it's never a bad thing to take a refresher course straight from the source and so that's why I was reading Plato writing about Socrates. Five Dialogues is the first actual writing of Plato's that I've read, and the first contemporary explanation of the Socratic method I've read, but all of it was very familiar because it's essentially the basis of formal logic, rationalism, and general truth seeking.

Plato writes a mean dialogue. These selections are easy to read and understand, the points being made are well made, and you can almost forget that these logicians predate science until they start talking about following oracles or the nature of bigness.

I don't want to take a shit on Plato and Socrates but it's very frustrating to read this from a modern perspective. When they're laying out proofs and doing math I'm right there with them, but pretty much all of "Phaedo" is about literal journeys to the underworld. It's a really jarring juxtaposition - Plato lays out some wonderful Socratic logic in simple speech "If A, then B, not if B, then A" kinds of stuff, the basis of understanding causation, and then suddenly you're reading about rivers of fire.

I guess books like these are worthwhile to read to get to the philosophy without the dilution added by fifteen centuries of follow-up philosophy, but the dilution doesn't hurt the ideas. So what I'm saying is that if your only exposure to Socrates or Plato is Sophie's World or a Freshman level Philosophy Lecture you're probably in okay shape, but read this stuff anyway because it's really fucking well-written and it's not hard to get through. And damn it if I didn't tear up a little reading the scene of Socrates' execution - it was powerful and inspiring and human in a way that a lot of Phil. 101 classes are never going to take the time to get into.

     - Alli

Plato. Five Dialogues. Translated by GMA Grube. Hackett Publishing. Indianapolis: Indiana. 1981.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

You can't take the sky from me

My sister got me this comic for Christmas and now I'm not sure what to do. It's the fourth collected arc in the series and I liked it a lot, but comics are expensive. So I may get more of them, but I'm equally likely to camp out in a bookstore for a little while and just read them in one go - this was a MUCH quicker read than I'd expected (maybe half an hour to forty minutes instead of the hour and a half that I'd budgeted).

It's nice to read up more on the crew of Serenity - the film kind of kicks you in the gut if you're a fan of Firefly so it's really pleasant to know that the story continues from there. I guess the question is if the story is worth it.

Since I came in in the middle of the expanded plot I don't have a hell of a lot to say here - the characters speak in voices that are very true to the Whedonverse, which isn't always great in a comic format. Some of the art is fantastic and really easy to identify as characters we've met before but sometimes it's a little hard to tell who you're looking at from panel to panel (I got Kaylee and River and Inara mixed up kind of a lot). There's a little bitty free-comic-book-day standalone story at the end of this book that has really simple art, but that comic does a better job of rendering some of the characters than the lovingly illustrated and colored pages in the rest of the book.

All in all I'm not disappointed because I didn't come in with a hell of a lot of expectations for this comic, and I'm cautiously optimistic that the other collections will be worth the money to add them to my collected Firefly gear. Zack Whedon did a good job of scripting the story and making the book feel like coming home to the 'Verse. Georges Jeanty, Karl Story, and Laura Martin did a great job with the art in general and it's certainly a well made series.

So I guess what I'm saying is this is a worthwhile read if you're into comics and into Firefly - if you're not into either of those things this is probably not the book for you.

Allie, Scott Ed. Serenity: Leaves on the Wind. Dark Horse. Millwaukie: Oregon. 2014.
     Zack Whedon: Script. Georges Jeanty: Pencils. Karl Story: Inks. Laura Martin: Colors.
     Michael Heisler: Letters.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Wilde was right

I don't seem to have read many of the Dickens books that most Dickens fans have read. I've never read Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, or David Copperfield, but I have read Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dombey and Son, and now I have also read The Old Curiosity Shop. It's a bit simpering, to say the least, but then so are a lot of Dickens' novels.

There's a great Hark, A Vagrant! comic that makes the joke that Dickens must have had a personal fetish for silent, inoffensive women. The main support for this joke (which I've sort of adopted as a pet literary theory whenever I'm reading through Dickens' industrial London) is essentially every single woman the man ever wrote. Dear, sweet, dead Nell is no exception. She's so totally un-self-interested that it kills her and the grandfather she's so unselfishly trying to protect. And I can only think of one woman in the story who IS self-interested - Sally Brass is the exception and she's "a fine fellow" to all the villains of the story when Dickens isn't busy sarcastically calling her a fair flower.

So, like pretty much every one of Dickens' stories other than Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, there's not much going on with the ladies who are supposed to make up the tear-jerking subject matter in this book. What's going on with the men is surprisingly hilarious at times, but largely tedious. I really don't understand the Quilp dynamic with ANY character in the story because, holy shit, he's so terrible, he's such a caricature of a terrible, monstrous asshole, that he's wholly unbelievable and pops off the page like a grotesque little jack-in-the-box. He's tremendously amusing to read but makes absolutely no sense as a protagonist, a plotter, or anything other than a literal demon. Maybe that's what Dickens wanted to do with the character? There are enough suggestions about it, but I don't think Quilp is supposed to literally be the devil. He's just drawn that way.

And, in case there was any doubt, The Old Curiosity Shop has affirmed for me the genius of Oscar Wilde. It may seem odd for a Dickens novel from 1841 to cement the brilliance of a playwright active forty years later, but Wilde made the most accurate statement I've seen in my copy of the book (printed cheekily by Penguin on the back cover): "One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears of laughter." There were several moments that made me laugh inappropriately (and the discovery of Grandfather's gambling made me throw my book at the floor) but little Nell's little death takes the cake. It's just so pathetic, and so desperate to be moving, that you can't help rolling your eyes and snorting at the page.

HOWEVER - if you ever need an illustration of The Gambler's Fallacy look no further than The Old Curiosity Shop. It's a textbook illustration of one of the fascinating ways that human brains are broken that also happens to nicely show that Nell SHOULD have been taken from her delusional, thieving, gambling grandfather.

     - Alli

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. Penguin Books. Middlesex: England. 1974. (1841)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Cracked talks about that damned dress

The dress looks blue and black to me, and I can make myself see it as white and gold, but none of that really matters because our senses are filthy liars that barely manage to keep our fragile but waaaaaaaay-too powerful brains alive from day to day. At least that's what I got out of this podcast.

And I'm inclined to believe it. The dress is an optical illusion of sorts, and humans are TERRIBLE at coping with things that fuck with their senses. We're sight-dominant animals and we really don't like it when we see things that aren't there, or when we're told that we're seeing something different than those around us (because we're also social conformists, which has probably served us better as a species than our vision has).

In the podcast Jack O'Brien, David Wong, and Michael Swaim discuss the kinds of cognitive kill-switches that throw people for loops the way the damn dress does, most of which comes down to the fact that our brains are too busy thinking about stuff to give two shits if we actually saw the dress as one color or another, or if there was actually a car driving down the street or if it was the same old boring street, or if there's classical music that you might actually enjoy or if it all sounds the same and isn't worth your time.

The speakers discuss interesting factoids that are pertinent to the discussion, among them are the facts that: cultures with more words for a color perceive more versions of that color; phantom limb pain has been treated by using mirrors and just believing enough that you are not missing a limb that the pain goes away; and that magicians are way cleverer than they're given credit for because they figured out that whole slight-of-hand thing about a thousand years ago and have been using it to separate people from their money ever since, which is awesome (said the granddaughter of a stage magician).

But I do feel like I need to answer the stupid dress question. I'm a person who works with images and has been known to photoshop now and then so here's what I did:

I opened a photo of the dress in photo shop and selected the left hand side and using the curves tool I set the brightest bit of the dress that wasn't glare as the white point. Then I selected the right hand side of the dress and using the curves tool I set the darkest part of the dress that wasn't shadow as the black point.

The center column of this photo is as I originally found it, with what seems to be the original colors that caused so much controversy.Using the eyedroppers in curves is a pretty basic, not at all fancy, no trickery involved with color sliders way, to correct oddly exposed photos. I already thought the dress was black and blue but the amount of color noise in the white and gold side leads me to believe that my initial assessment was correct and also doesn't matter a single tiny bit. See whatever color you want to see. It's just a dress.

Cracked Podcasts - Why the Black-Blue/White-Gold dress is reality's Sorting Hat

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What the fuck are connectives?

Whipping Star is an odd fucking book. I like it!

I haven't read any Herbert other than the 6 books he wrote in the Dune series but I adore Dune and figured I should give this a chance.

There are some things that are incredibly frustrating about Frank Herbert - mostly in his earlier works - when it comes to representation of women and different races and pretty much anything that ISN'T a straight white male. This book has good things and bad things when it comes to those frustrations; for instance, the first time we meet the main character he's getting his 54th divorce and thinking of his most recent ex-wife as a "stupid female." But the same character is non-white and the vast majority of the book is about different species trying not to suppress each other's cultures and attempting to communicate with a tremendously powerful being who identifies as female. But other than the barely-touched-upon ex-wife at the beginning of the book there are only three characters in the story who are identifiable as women: one is bringing about the end of the universe, one is a lawyer, and one is dead.

The way Herbert writes and uses women in his novels is something that's been hugely problematic for me in reading those novels, especially in the Dune series. The Bene Gesserit are powerful women, but their motto is "we exist only to serve." Chani is a Fremen woman who was raised to fight and march across howling deserts and provide for her family, but who ends her life as a concubine and dies in childbirth. Admittedly the place of women in the Duniverse improves drastically after God Emperor, but it kind of feels like it shouldn't have taken so many books to get there. And a ton of people say things like "oh, Herbert was really liberal, he was just proving a point about how badly women are treated in our world" as a defense but it doesn't hold water for me because there WERE opportunities in the first three books to make women both powerful and effective and to allow them to fight the injustices against them in the world and the only one who does even a tiny bit of that is Jessica. Sort of. But only to secure power for her grandson.

Anyway, other than the really irksome way that all non-Caleban females are represented in the novel, Whipping Star is a really good book. It's incredibly thoughtful on subjects such as communication and perception, there's a great far-future-noir feeling surrounding the investigation of a mysterious metallic beach ball showing up on a sparsely populated planet, and the primary plot is startlingly new to me - I'm really surprised that I've not seen many other novels that explore the concept at the heart of this book, though I am not surprised that the only other place I've seen such a story is in fantasy.

I'm delighted to have read Whipping Star, and it was such a fun, easy little read that I'm sure I'll do so again in the future.

     - Alli

Herbert, Frank. Whipping Star. Berkley Publishing. New York: New York. 1977. (1969).

Friday, March 6, 2015

Somewhat insipid but not worthless

This is one of my in-between-books; when I've finished with one novel but haven't decided which one to move on to next I'll read a chapter or two or even just a few pages out of an in-between-book to pass the time. I can't really remember when I started reading Poemcrazy, but I know it's been a long, mostly unpleasant, time.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with poetry. I write poetry, but I hate most of what I write. I read poetry, but I hate most of what I read. But the poetry that I've read that I don't hate is poetry that I love with a terrifying and potentially unhealthy intensity, and the poetry that I've written that I'm proud of tends to be prickly and morbid and really not very helpful to anyone in the long run.

Wooldridge's memoir/instruction manual is full of the kind of poetry that I hate (and yes, a lot of it is hers but sadly even more of the stuff that made me roll my eyes was written by children). It's crammed with exercises that seem too schlocky to take seriously but is so sincere that I've got to look at my own cynicism with a grain of salt.

I guess what really bugged me is that I don't think I'd get along with Wooldridge at all and most of this book is written in a very conversational style. Wooldridge tells you about wandering around in nature and renaming the flowers for the sheer joy of it and deciding what parts of Native American, Asian, and Indian cultures are important for her to use as writing tools - it's exactly the melange of nature-loving cuddliness and appropriation that you'd expect to find at a yoga retreat.

But, for all that Wolldridge's personality sets my teeth on edge, and for all that she spends what seems like an exhausting amount of time anthropomorphizing plants, animals, and the planet, a lot of the exercises and practice plans she has in the book are good ideas. I don't like her idea of word tickets (the cover photo includes a word ticket - a word taped to a raffle ticket that is used to help move poems along) - I think it's lazy and limiting - but making lists of words that have sounds you like, or describing the objects around you in detail, or creating alternate characters of yourself to write from are all fine ideas that I think would be very helpful to someone feeling a bit dried up at their creative fount.

So I'd probably never re-read this book again because there's a credulous description of a Ginko tree (and Wooldridge actually notes that the species is "sacred in the orient" - gag me with a fork, that's some prime '90s white western mysticism) manifesting a miracle to save herself that makes me want to get out a chainsaw and that sort of story happens every few pages, I would be willing to flip through occasionally to find exercises.

Wooldridge, Susan G. Poemcrazy. Clarkson Potter. New York: New York. 1996.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

I think I'll stick to the shorts

Over the years I've read a few of Chekhov's short stories so I decided to read some of his longer works when I was at a cheap bookstore and ended up picking up an old book with four of his plays in it. I maybe should have remembered my personal history with drama and decided to pick up a collection of shorts instead because, damn, do I not like reading drama. Chekhov is very competent and I'm sure he was writing about things that seemed tremendously important and simultaneously hugely overblown in his own time but there's something that's lost in the translation from the 120 year old Russian plays to a reader in the US in 2015. The plays are sometimes funny, sometimes dull, and short enough not to make me want to tear my hair out, but reading four of them in a row was just a bit too much for me to handle with grace.

The Seagull - 1895
This is a play about a dozen people who can't get what they want and so refuse to grow up. An aging actress stifles her artistic son; her younger lover leads on and torments the young woman the son loves; the son is loved by the daughter of a steward; the daughter is loved by a schoolmaster she can only sneer at. The actress's brother wishes he had done something other than public service with his life and is unsatisfied with his retirement. There are two writers (the son and the lover) who are alternately obsessed and repulsed by their own writing. I just don't have a lot of sympathy for most of these characters. The lot of them seem like terrible, self-involved hypocrites. But I do have to admire the steward's daughter, who gets shit done, and her schoolmaster husband who soldiers on in spite of his problems. Which, I think, is the point. The upper classes in the stories don't do anything and waste everybody's time while looking good while the lower classes are the ones who actually strive for what they want/need. I think. I also think this is going to be a recurring theme in the other plays in this collection.

The Cherry Orchard - 1904
I feel like there's a lot of context that I'm missing here because I'm not exactly well-versed in turn-of-the-century Russian history, but the gist of what I'm getting is that people can be just so fucking useless and Chekhov is totally sick of that shit. I'm also picking up that classism is stupid and, sadly, getting a "bitches be crazy" vibe. To be totally honest a lot of what I'm reading here is exactly the sort of thing that irritates the shit out of me whenever I read Ibsen: none of the characters are sympathetic, all of their problems are inane or incomprehensible, and there's not enough action or consideration to keep me engaged. I could chill with Firs - the old, sick, lost servant is the only one in the story who is completely disgusted by what he sees and seems to be powerless to stop it or divert it in any way. Everyone else just keeps saying "oh no, I couldn't bear it if this happened" and then exercises no effort for the outcome they want. I mean, I know there's supposed to be a sense of futility in this story but Firs is the only one for whom any action is actually futile because he's pretty much dead from the start.

Three Sisters - 1901
This play is a lot of the same but we get to see a lot of fixation on the future - the question is asked multiple times "what will the future think of us" and never really answered. The sisters are accomplished without being happy and the story does a lot of talking about how class is a construct and work is the only way to be satisfied. And, I mean, I agree with that in general but I'm a little sick of reading about it. This was also the first of the plays in this collection that I stopped bothering with names at all - the only ones I remember are Natalya, because she's really irritating, and Bobik, because it sounds funny to me. I get the feeling that this name thing wouldn't matter so much if I was actually watching a play and associating different actors with the characters, but when you're not given the visual aid it's really easy for these characters to blend into one another - mostly because a lot of them say the same sorts of things as the others.

Uncle Vanya - 1897
I think of all the plays in this book Uncle Vanya is the best constructed and has the most sympathetic characters. It's the only one in which the humor of the situation is sad and human, not grotesque, and funnily enough it's really the only play with a happy ending. I also got more of a personal resonance with this story because it wasn't about people wasting their lives out of a habit of indolence, it was about people wasting their lives out of misplaced trust and altruism. Uncle Vanya's outburst to his brother-in-law is the funniest, saddest, and most entertaining moment in the whole collection.

     - Alli

Chekhov, Anton. Four Great Plays by Chekhov. Bantam Classic. New York: New York. 1963.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Your TV is the worst kind of liar

Last month David Wong, pretty much my favorite Cracked author (and the author of some completely amazing and bizarre books), wrote an article about the odd perception of wealth and poverty on TV. This week he's joined by Jack O'Brien and Kristi Harrison to talk about exactly how fucked up the presentation of money is on TV.

This is one of those great moments where you go through your memories and say "holy shit, they're right!" Think about the poorest non-addict, non-homeless character you've seen on TV. Or even someone who WAS homeless - I'm going to use Phoebe from Friends as an example here because she's PERFECT. Phoebe is a part-time masseuse who plays terrible music as a side gig. Once in a while she's got some other kind of wacky part-time job supporting her. How the fuck does Phoebe afford to live in New York? Using current numbers a NY masseuse will make about $2500 a month (about $25 an hour at 25 hours a week with really rough estimates on tips and taxes); Phoebe gets coffee at Central Perk at least two times a day every day of the week - using current NY Starbucks pricing for a coffee and a cookie each time (which is similar to Phoebe's typical order and also their cheapest offerings on the menu) that's about $225 a month. Let's assume that OTHER than the coffee shop Phoebe is usually frugal with food and spends only $100 a week on her vegetarian diet. She lives in New York and doesn't drive her cab often so she must have a metro card, and I'm going to assume she uses the $30 a week option instead of the $112 a month because it's unlikely that she'd be able to save up that much cash in a month but $30 a week isn't as big a hit even if it costs more overall. That leave her $1755 a month for rent, and hey, that means she can afford a whole 400 square foot apartment in Chinatown. And nothing else. No dinners out, no strings for her guitar, no insurance or registration for her cab, no toothpaste, new clothes, or health insurance. But Phoebe is at least at a net positive of $5 a month (especially since she's got a roommate at least part of the time. Joey, on the other hand, owed Chandler at least $100,000.00 at one point.

And you see the same thing all over the place in movies and TV - In Big Bang Theory Penny, a waitress and sometimes actress, can afford a similar apartment to two PhDs living down the hall from her (plus she spends a lot more money on clothes and hair and makeup stuff than Leonard and Sheldon do); hell even in Twin Peaks Big Ed keeps a nice house on the income from his small service station and the Log Lady has a great cabin and a nice tea set and money to eat at the diner in spite of having no visible means of income. Unless a show is mostly about poverty the writers totally erase poverty.

Anway, Harrison, O'Brien, and Wong make a lot of great points about the same sorts of things and it's well worth a listen.

     - Alli

Cracked Podcasts: Money Myths in Pop Culture
Cracked Articles: 5 Insane things you believe about money (Thanks to the movies)