Monday, May 28, 2012

The Philosophy of the Beats edited by Sharin N Elkholy

The Philosophy of the Beats edited by Sharin N Elkholy is part of the Philosophy of Popular Culture series published by University Press of Kentucky.  An ambitious collection of essays by different authors who look at the work of the several of the Beats through the filter of philosophy in that, anyone familiar with the Beats will agree, no one school of philosophy could embrace the entirety of any of the beat artists, let alone the entire beat generation.

Elkholy succeeds, which is laudable, although I did not like all of the essays.  I was particularly disappointed in A. Robert Lee’s “Tongues Untied:  Beat Ethnicities, Beat Multiculture” which read more like a laundry list or a catalog of evidence, as if the reader would not be aware of the fact that the Beats were not all white and/or male.  But if I was disappointed, it may be more evidentiary of my own knowledge than what would be considered common knowledge.  I will say that I hope Lee is planning to write a book that will allow him to go into the subject with more depth.  This disappointing essay could be the starting point for so much more.

There are other essays that didn’t exactly inspire or delight me but there were some that I wanted to reread almost as soon as I had finished them.  Roseanne Giannini Quinn’s essay on Diane di Prima was a joy to read, as much because so few books about the Beats bother to consider the contribution of the women Beats as for how the author connects Hélène Cixous, Simone de Beauvoir, and the early ripples of the women’s movement.  When reading the writings of di Prima and the other Beat women, it’s easy to forget that the women’s movement was not yet in full swing and women were still very much anchored to the home. 

I also enjoyed  “Being-at-Home” by Josh Michael Haynes looks at Gary Snyder’s eco-political and Buddhist philosophy as manifested in his writings and even his life choices, a theme that is similarly explored in Messersmith-Glavin’s “Between Social Ecology and Deep Ecology.”  A collection like this is at its best when it allows two scholars to explore the same source—whether it is a writer, a movement, an idea.  The two essays do not contradict one another but they offer clearly distinct perspectives of Snyder’s voice, inviting someone unfamiliar with Snyder to approach his works from more than one angle.

Naturally, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, as do Burroughs and  dominate but they do not overshadow.  However, there are some surprises as well, including an essay on Peter Whitehead’s short film Wholly Communion which can be found online.  In fact, many of the poems, even audio recordings of the poems, can be found online, which allows the reader to explore the texts referenced and better appreciate some of the allusions made in the essays themselves even more.  You don't have to be familiar with the works of the beats to enjoy this book.  In fact, the essays that explored the works of the writers with whom I was least familiar are the ones I enjoyed almost as much as the ones I liked most.  If you like philosophy and have not yet approached the Beats themselves, you could do worse than reading this book by way of an introduction.  You could do a lot worse because this book is great.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Dollhouse: Epitaphs by Andrew Chambliss and others

Dollhouse: Epitaphs written by Andrew Chambliss, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon is the first of what promises to be an interesting interjection to the short lives Dollhouse television series.  When the technology created by Rossum Corporation goes viral, anyone and everyone can become a tabula rasa with only one goal:  kill and keep killing.  Only a few of the series regulars show up for the graphic novel which practically guarantees that there will be more story coming.  Echo and Alpha as well as Mag and Zone are here but many others, including Topher, Adelle, Priya, and Victor, along with other familiar faces are not present in this graphic novel but some new faces are presented.

This is not a sequel.  Rather, this story takes place before Epitaph One and crosses over into Epitaph Two a bit.  For those of you who have never seen Epitaph One (such as yours truly) this is a welcome segue, offering some explanation and back story for characters that were suddenly introduced when I saw Epitaph Two. (see footnote)  The characters are living in a post-apocalyptic type future where only a few have been untouched by the viral brain-wipe and are fighting for their lives, gradually finding one another, while trying to use the technology that is destroying humanity to save it. 

Written by the same people who scripted the television series the artwork does a good job of evoking the tone of the story and the humor manages to find life on the page as effectively as it does on the screen.  Anyone familiar with the Whedonverse will be delighted to see the emotional undercutting and quirky asides that are typical of his character creations.  The various threads that were left dangling on the television show are clearly meant to be tied up in the comics, including the development of how some of the survivors manage to self-imprint and the significance of Haven.

This single graphic novel collects volumes 1-5 and the ending invites more issues.   However, I cannot find anything online to suggest that more comics are coming.  I hope so.  I had misgivings about the show’s premise and felt that it was beginning to come into its own in the second season.  I liked the twist on a typical dystopian society that seems so much more like our own than any other I’ve seen and I thoroughly enjoyed this post-apocalyptic pseudo-zombie world.  Enjoyed it, in fact, more than I would have anticipated.  Color me genuinely surprised and over-all pleased.

Footnote:  Okay, just in case you’re confused, let me try to explain.  Epitaph One should have aired at the end of Season One but it wasn't actually scheduled to be aired by Fox, developed, presumably, for the dvd release alone.  When Dollhouse was abruptly canceled, either Joss Whedon or Fox decided to air Epitaph Two without ever having aired Epitaph One.  Suddenly there were these characters I hadn’t seen before but somehow it wasn’t too difficult to get a handle on where/when the story was taking place nor to appreciate who these new people were, even without the individual back-stories. Which says a lot about the quality of the writing.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Punk Ethic by Ted Decker

Punk Ethic by Ted Decker is a young adult novel about Martin Henry who, when his most inspiring teacher suggests he do something, takes up the challenge.  He is helped along the way by his best friend, Jeff, who is a bit of a jerk, and the girl, Holly, upon whom he has a crush, who is a bit of a bitch.  He decides to put together a benefit concert and pulls together a disparate group of peers to perform for his cause—the elimination of one landmine in a foreign country.

How can a novel that is well written so utterly fail?  It’s clear the author has talent but being able to put words onto the page is not enough.  The first and foremost problem with this novel is that the characters are all cliché.  There is the teacher who sparks a slacker’s interest, a mother who loves him but plays no significant role in the protagonist’s life.  Decker even stoops to include a “magical negro” as a secondary character.  Even his friends are stereotypes—with Jeff meant to be a comic foil to Martin’s overwrought seriousness but offering no humor to inspire the reader to laugh and Holly being moody and obvious and teasing all at once. 

But worse is that the author chose to tell the story through Martin Henry’s first person voice, a voice that never sounds true.  I have never met an adolescent, even the most well-read and erudite teenager, use the word “nigh” except in a quote or to be intentionally cliché.  Decker, however, is not being ironic and he creates a character that is not the least bit provocative.  The only character who offers anything provocative is Holly, who reveals something towards the end of the novel that makes it evident Decker is telling the wrong story. 

The only story here is Holly’s so one has to wonder why Decker chose to tell Martin’s story at all.  Had she been telling her story, the need for the too many clichés would have been avoided, the emotional tension she is supposed to present for Henry would have been fully realized, and the moment in which she finally makes a confession to him would be more impactful.

I was disappointed, increasingly so as the promise set up by the author is never fulfilled.  Thankfully, it’s a quick read, a distraction.  At best, this is a summer novel, nothing but fluff.  Holly’s story . . . well, it’s not fluffy; it has teeth and would bite deep, if only it had been told. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana

Ichiro by Ryan Inzana is a graphic novel that turns into a fantastic journey into an underworld in which Ichiro is confronted by mythic characters.  After his father’s death serving in the American military, Ichiro’s mother takes a job in Japan where her son lives with his maternal grandfather.  There is some unnamed tension between Ichiro’s mother and her father.  His grandfather enthusiastically shares Japan and the culture with the boy who follows along until a contrived narrative moment carries him off to the meat of his adventure.

The groundwork laid in the beginning of the novel, with Ichiro wearing a stereotypically American slogan on his clothing and denigrating his Asian roots, is never developed.  He is carried off, in a mythic archetype, to face his demons.  This is where the novel fell apart for me because it was too much “on the nose.”  The myths shared by his mother and grandfather are clearly meant to set up this journey but the connection that these shared stories create when they are told by a relative is thrown aside for a literal journey into a myth.  Thus, metaphor is given a concrete reality that reduces its universal meaning and leaves it not even personal.

Visually, I anticipated a marriage of traditional manga style with an American influence or perhaps vice-versa but this was not the case.  Once I let go of that expectation, I could appreciate the artistic quality of the pages but again I felt that there was a missed opportunity.

And this is ultimately how I felt after reading this graphic novel:  like a teacher about to write “does not live up to its potential” on a poorly performing student’s report card.  It’s good but not great.  No discussion of the complex relationship between America and Japan even though this boy is wearing war rhetoric on his t-shirt and not even when he visits Hiroshima.  The cultural clash of an American boy and his Japanese grandfather seems completely absent and whatever conflict there is between the mother and grandfather is never explored even as a carry-over into the next generation.  All of these brilliant threads left dangling and meaningless.  At best, this graphic novel is amusing and perhaps the author only aspired to write an amusing novel.  However, the novel could have been something literarily and visually brilliant.  Unfortunately, the creator simply did not deliver.  

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim is the novel that inspired the movie by the same name.  One winter day in England, a Lotty Wilkins, a married woman, sees an advertisement in a newspaper for a one month lease on a medieval castle in Italy.  She soon notices Rose Arbuthnot, a devout Christian wife, daydreaming over the same notice in the paper and approaches her, suggests that they should at least look into it, and then she introduces herself to this woman who is only recognizable in passing.  The two advertise for two more women to join them and Lady Caroline, a young socialite, and the elderly Mrs. Fisher become the third and fourth to the party that soon finds themselves in Italy in April.

I read this novel because I have always found the movie delightful.  It is reminiscent of Jane Austen but instead of having four young sisters eager for marriage, we have two discontentedly married women, a young woman aching to get away from flirtation, and an older widow happy to be living alone.  All four are seeking a change but none of them knows that they will find precisely what they didn’t know they needed while vacationing in this castle.

The novel surprised me because there is more psychological depth to the characters than I expected.  The movie is charming and the change in the characters never feels false but upon reading the novel my appreciation for each of the four characters, for who they are and how they evolve, grew tremendously.  I could relate to aspects of all four women.  Lotty’s innocent confidence, Rose’s frustration with her life, Lady Caroline’s ennui and repressed grief, and even Mrs. Fisher’s loneliness. 

I am not suggesting that the novel is provocative.  The purple prose is suited to the purpose of this novel but will probably annoy some readers.  If you love Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery then you will simply adore this novel.  If you love the movie, this novel will prove to be as enchanting as the movie.  Truly. 

Please Note:  I do not recommend the kindle edition, which is the one I read.  It is very poorly edited, with letters missing from words and misspellings throughout.  Though seems to be interchangeable with through and thought.  I have not read another version but would assume any other version would be better edited than this one.   
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