Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Life’s been busy lately, but here are some thoughts on a couple of books I’ve read.

Cause for Alarm, which I liberally quoted in a couple of postings back, is a 1938 pre-World War II spy novel written by one of this noble genre’s founding giants, an intelligent, patriotic Englishman of the old school, Eric Ambler.

An old-school novel it is, indeed, and that’s reason enough for some of you to track it down. The tale tells the adventures of an ordinary, young, struggling engineer, Nicholas Marlow, whose new job as European rep for an English machine tool company takes him to pointedly unglamorous Milan, Italy. Not the glorious romantic Leonardo Italy, but the sinister industrial Italy of fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Almost upon Marlow’s arrival in this pool of sinister shadows, events take a strange turn as he discovers that he’s succeeding a previous rep who met with one of those non-accidental “nasty accidents.” Marlow becomes an unwilling pawn in a sinister espionage match between the fey and sinister General Vargas, who’s conniving to steal weapons manufacturing secrets from the British, and a thoroughly Americanized Russian agent names Zaleshoff.

This isn’t only a pre-James Bond novel, it’s a pre-everything spy novel. Nicholas Marlow is an ordinary bloke trapped in extraordinary circumstances, the kind of character that seems to have vanished from today’s ultra-professionalized, high-tech genre novels: a sad evolution, now that I think on it. Furthermore, the Oprah-izing of today’s professional superheroes with emotional problems doesn’t make them any easier to identify with, in my lights (really, what exactly is recognizably human about the inhuman Matthew Bourne)? Often these stabs at humanizing feels more like dabbed-on psychobabble. (OK, I’m anti-touchy-feely. Oprah will never give me a car, or let me into her book club, either). The only authors working now I know of who seem to avoid this problem are John LeCarré and Alan Furst, who sets his spy novels in . . . World War II.

The violence in
Cause for Alarm is infrequent and handled in low-key, non-bloody fashion. Amber’s more interested in his smoggy gray atmosphere, elegant, careful story line and plot twists, Marlow’s increasingly frantic state of mind and, most significantly, the larger political struggle into which the poor man is drawn.

Ambler was a British socialist of deep patriotic stripe. Like so many western liberals back in the day, he took the naïve view of Stalin’s Soviet Union, though, as I’ve said, his take on fascism still rings true. (In his defense, I doubt if any of us alive now could say we’d have been the wiser back then; sure as hell, Roosevelt and Churchill weren’t and they otherwise knew what they were doing, too.) His heroes don’t, thank God, get in touch with their feelings, but they achieve a wider moral awareness by the end. As Mr. Marlow learns, business is never simply and innocently business, but forever tied to ideas of politics, power and justice.

Speaking of heroes getting in touch with their feelings, once I returned
Cause for Alarm to its spot on the shelf, I jumped into the time machine that is my bookcase and powered seventy years into the future—into 2007 actually—and landed in the comic book world of Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, a sometimes funny romp into the troubled psyches of comic book super heroes and super villains, especially one who goes by the swell moniker of Dr. Impossible.

I discovered this one when the author, also a noted game designer, gave a hilarious reading at one of the Litquake events at the estimable Borderlands Books on Valencia in San Francisco back in October. Besides the humor and wit, I couldn’t resist the comic-book colored dust jacket design.

Still, I felt trepidation. I worried that, like a lot of books (including my own), this would turn out to be a flashy and funny, but somewhat empty camp exercise.

Sad to say, I might be right.

By transplanting comic-book characters from the vivid universe where they live into the plain black and white code system of the novel, Austin Grossman hopes to take readers inside their hearts, minds and souls. The trouble is, once we’re there, it’s sometimes funny, but, like Quentin Tarantino movies,
not terribly interesting, .

The antagonist is the perfectly brilliant, fantastically evil Dr. Impossible, who gets most of the good lines, of course, as the Devil is wont to get. The bad doctor turns out to have a past as a rejected college physics geek expunged from respectable scientific society when his most-brilliant experiment ever goes fatally awry. This embittered outcast joins the colorful secret underground of comic-book super villains in their relentless, and relentlessly frustrated, plots to take over the world and force it do their evil bidding! Zounds!

The super heroes meanwhile, are a medically depressed, fractious lot of social misfits themselves. Their story is narrated by the insecure, self-conscious half-cyborg Femme Fatale. Grossman’s notion that being a super-anything is to spend life a sad neurotic outcast from normal human society is clever and valid (and perhaps an idea that plays better in the first
Spider-Man movie). He’s a heckuva funny writer, but unfortunately, this book never finds a compelling story, nor does it create as rich and believable a world for its characters to do battle in as the one we see inked in classic comics, both old and new. This is one old-style tale that, to me, would work better as a new-style graphic novel.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Them Thar Hills! #2: Time Under Your Feet

“One more picture of the Cat,” Elizabeth warned me the other day, “and that camera goes back to Best Buy for a coffee grinder!”

With those words, off we drove on a cool, cloudless Friday morning after Thanksgiving, up into the Berkeley Hills via broad, snake-winding Claremont
Avenue. At the top of Claremont, at the intersection called “Four Corners,” we turned left onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard and stopped .08 miles further on at the trailhead for Side Hill Trail on the dizzying steep western slope.

About forty people beat us there. Most of them, I suspect, were rockhounds
—amateur geologists—but we were no doubt all of one mind on one issue: Better to expend precious time out in the endless open in relatively cleaner air than to spend Black Friday jostling with the great bargain-desperate mass, unwashed and not, at the mall in search of trinkets whose sparkle would fade the day after the Christmas. Time will always be a greater commodity than money.

This outing was a geology walk hosted by the Claremont Canyon Conservancy down into the same-named canyon. We were tipped off to this event via San Francisco environmental activist Jake Sigg
’s newsletter (jakesigg@earthlink.net). Our articulate guide for the two-hour and about-one-mile stroll through the Claremont Canyon was Doris Sloan, a retired UC Berkeley professor of Geology and author of Geology of the San Francisco Bay Region.

Doris had clearly once been a teacher: She was articulate, bursting with knowledge and passion and even demanding in her crusty way: She fired off occasional pop quizzes as our large group struggled to both keep up and not get too far ahead throughout the walk. I shrank with a subtle embarrassed guilt at how little I knew. Should I raise my hand to ask permission to step into the bushes?

There’s more to the Berkeley Hills than you’d think at first glance, especially if you’re seeing them from the Emeryville
flats. They are a complex, folded and often rugged terrain of canyons and ravines, lumbering north-to-south, a few miles east of San Francisco Bay; hills hiding hills, canyons concealing ravines, many trails weaving about through surprising nooks and crannies. Dozens of varieties of trees grow here, many more than the native oaks and nonnative eucalyptus that are easily identified. Golden meadows sprawl throughout.

Some of the trails aren
’t much wider than a two-by-four. These are my favorites, these are the ones that suddenly sweep a walker out around the ribs of the hills into dizzying panoramas of the East Bay cities below and, the world beyond: San Francisco, the Coast Range rolling south down the San Mateo Peninsula and the Golden Gate. The air was bright and clear enough to see the now oil-stained Farallon Islands, forty miles out in the blue Pacific, clearly visible beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, looking like a sailing ship pushing peacefully south through a calm autumn sea.

My respect for science is vast, though my grasp of it is often shaky, but I can say that there’s tens of millions of years of hidden history in these pretty hills. Only a sliver of of it involves us humans. All of it keeps moving. Once in a great while it moves violently. To geologists worldwide, the Berkeley Hills are a favorite trove of evidence and insight into the ancient, and still profoundly active, forces that have been shaping this little blue home of ours even before
homo sapiens sapiens was a twinkle in the God's Big Eye.

For instance, that bay you see in the photo above: Nine to ten million years ago, it was a mountain range that has long since been shifted by volcanic activity far north to the wine country, over fifty miles away. This movement took place at about the average speed that a fingernail grows, with occasional bursts of several feet caused by the infamous Hayward or San Andreas faults. Several feet doesn
’t sound like much, until you factor in the shift of all that mass and the release of all that power. And the fact that you might be standing on it.

Around that time, the Golden Gate wasn
’t even a gate and it was a long walk to the ocean. The third-highest point in these hills, Round Top, located in the Sibley Volcanic Preserve a few miles south of our location, is an extinct volcano that last saw action millions of years ago and many miles south of its current location. To make it even awesomely stranger, these same tectonic forces have tilted, twisted, folded and finally tipped the now-dormant feature onto its side.

That’s a lot of change for our minds to absorb. And a lot of time. After all, when you look at all that hard, dense rock, it doesn
’t seem to be moving a bit, does it?

But it has. And is.

Our walk started at the top, through a field of basalt, a type of shale produced by those volcanic forces mentioned above. Doris Sloan stopped along the way to point out the many features of this material, including dabs of white-streaked red rock that turn out to be the remains of gas bubbles. We stopped at the breaking point between the basalt and an area called the Orinda Formation, where we see several types of rock, indicated by the presences of thousands of stream pebbles. After that, we wound our way to the oldest, most unique ground of all: the Claremont Shale.

Very cool, that Claremont Shale. Bands of white rock, dusted with red, parallel to the ground like layer cake. This shale is not inanimate rock, but something fabulous: a mass of once-living things, known by the delightful word "chert." This formation is made of silica, which are the compressed skeletal remains of sea creatures, millions and million of years old. A couple of hundred feet above the Oakland flats and several miles inland, we were standing on and looking at an old sea bed that continues to rise higher. For this we must thank a process called subduction, which loosely resembles what happens when you try to shove your ultra-thick shag rug under your thin handmade Persian rug.

On the way back up to the top of these hills (which, BTW, are comparatively young), I took a couple of photos (above) of some chevron folds, an especially resistant part of the volcanic layer. Elizabeth remarked on how this brief present-day journey through time past had given her perspective on our place in Life and on Nature’s basic toughness in the face of everything, even our current depredations. Nature always either bounces back or finds her way around. If we fail to take care of what takes care of us, we’re the ones who will be gone. “Nature,” Elizabeth said, “will take care of itself.”

Monday, November 19, 2007

One More Cause for Alarm

. . . when you’re above the law, when you are the law, the phrase about the ends justifying the means has a real meaning . . . .If you felt that the state which you worshipped above your God was endangered by the life of one insignificant man, would hesitate to have him shot? . . . . That’s the danger of Fascism, of state-worship. It supposes . . . an egocentric unit. The idea of the state is not rooted in the masses, it is not of the people. It is an abstract, a God-idea, a psychic dung-hill raised to shore up an economic system that is no longer safe. When you’re on the top of that sort of dung-hill, it doesn’t matter whether the ends are in reality good or bad.
Eric Ambler,
Cause for Alarm (1938)

That quote above (from one of Mr. Ambler’s excellent spy novels of the 1930s) rang a bell in me and led me to ask whether or our country truly, really, seriously, not-playing-the-Hitler-card fallen under the dread shadow of fascism?

Like Mr. Ambler, I’m defining the concept pretty narrowly. Some years ago, I remarked to an office mate about how what passed for the Left in those days (and now) was “agin’ everythin’ and fer nothin’.” The officemate shot me a shriveling look of offense and piously sneered, “What are you? Some kind of fascist?” (Well, heavens to murgatroyd, ah sure don’t want to be accused of that, now do I? Ah, jus’ better shut mah mouth and sit on the QT, and keep my sorry-ass curiosity to myself!)

The word “fascism” has become so debased, it’s come to mean “anything I don’t like” and that can encompass a range of things too numerous for clever examples. Thanks to the debasement that politics brings to language (see George Orwell) fascist has become a lazy solipsistic catch-all slur, the bullet-word of a sort of red-necked leftism: “They’re all the same and you’re probably one of them too!”

Another assumption lurking behind the sneer: the anarchist’s seductive assumption that all power in all of its manifestation is always fundamentally evil, no matter the means, no matter the ends: in this flattened, sentimental Moral Universe, Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler occupy the same space, alongside Social Security and the Holocaust. (An interesting discussion for another interesting day.)

Still, after stripping away the pejorative angle, fascism describes something that actually exists in the human political universe, even though the best historians have a hard time pinning it down exactly. As Eric Ambler demonstrated himself to be sophisticated, thoughtful writer, I’ll take his definition and return to our question:

Is the United States, under the administration of President Richard B. Cheney, becoming a classically fascist state, say in the manner of the original fascisto Benito Mussolini? I have gleaned three or fours bits of evidence, but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll address this one:

Ladies and Gentleman, the President of the United States . . .
"... and those WMDs are wight inside my widdle head!"
(Photo from the White House website!)

The Cheney Administration believes, with transcendent consistency, that they have not, and are not at this time, making any mistakes.

This relates to Mr. Ambler’s notion of the “god-idea.” In a press conference of April 13, 2004, reporters asked President Cheney’s Chief Aide what he thought was his biggest mistake while serving in the Cheney Administration. The Aide, a famously inarticulate Connecticut native, was unable to answer with anymore than a practiced Texas drawl: “I wish you could have given me this written question ahead of time.” (I came up with several snarky responses to that, but, really, I’m dumbfounded this guy is allowed to negotiate with Vladimir Putin.)

Unidentified Cheney Aide on Interview for Next Job

The Aide was not the only one to see himself as floating in such an exquisite state of perfection. The website Think Progress, (Warning: I sometimes don’t) in its summary of responses to this question of Mistakes Made, reports former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez saying he couldn’t think of a single mistake he’d made during his six years in the Cheney White House. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice gave essentially the same answer in March 2007 when asked about the war in Iraq: “I don’t know.” Did she mean, “God, we’ve made so many, I don’t know where to start.”? Or is it more like, “What mistakes?” (Then again it could be “Don’t ask me! I just work here!”)

It’s been said by commentators smarter than this space that Cheney and his minions live in a bubble. Mash the word “bubble” together with Mr. Ambler’s “God-idea” and you get something called “The God Bubble.”

I dutifully resist blanket statements, but here’s one that I think can stand the historian’s test: All dictators live in the God Bubble. All those with a drive toward Absolute Power (I’m not counting the kid who just wants to be President—OK, a senator--someday), those laser-minded visionaries who see the humanity and the world as expendable clay, live in this bubble. They float contemptuously apart from the webbed and sticky reality of the world outside. The rest of us live with the consequences of both our own decisions and those of others, but those in the God Bubble see themselves as creators of reality, to paraphrase a former White House aide. The idea, the ideal is all that matters. It is the real reality. The rest is dross, including you and me.

They can never say “Ooops, sorry, screwed up” and change course. Their egos and their ideals are one and transcendent, so all decisions become final. If the scales do fall from their eyes, the God Bubble, pierced suddenly by sharp reality, bursts and down the dreamers fall like stone into the web with the rest of us. (As with people who lose their religion, it would probably drive some of them insane.).

The inhabitants of the God Bubble, I’m talking about, in fact, even seem to ignore the likely fate of their own Republican Party, sacrificing those who still support them in the bitter face of everything they’ve done. Their precious Theory of the Unitary Executive, an abstract idea (besides being inherently fascistic) that so flunks the test of reality and is causing bad consequences that are yet to be realized, matters more simply because of what it is: an Abstract Ideal. The Fate of the Nation be damned. It’s almost . . . treasonous. It’s certainly beyond impeachable.

It’s not pitiful and I don’t at all feel sorry for them, no matter how “sincere” their defenders and apologists claim they are. (Sincerity is an amoral quality, the province of monsters and saints alike; the Nazis were the epitome of it. Every single con artist I’ve ever dealt with oozed it like sap.) We choose our leaders in the rightful expectation that they’ll act like grown-ups, especially in matters of war and peace. The shock of the September 11 attacks was no license to experiment on the world with abstracts or an excuse to react like a squalling infant. We needed tough and cunning leadership, sure, but they also needed to be clear-headed, open-minded, cool, nimble and fiendishly skeptical.

Men and women who lived in the world as it is, not inside the God Bubble. History punishes inhabitants of the God Bubble always. It's time we the people punish them. Impeach the bastards. Now.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Watch the Kitty!

A couple of weeks ago, I turned 53. Some of you are, no doubt, bored and weary with this news. (“What is he? Some kind of show-off, just ‘cause he’s lived longer than most of us and is younger than the rest of us? What’s he want? A medal, Mr. I’m-53-and-You’re-Not?”)

Actually, the point is my wife Elizabeth (age forbidden to be divulged; “Oh? And who does she think she is? Some kinda—“
Oh, shut up!)

Elizabeth gave me a very cool birthday present: a digital Canon Powershot S5IS, a real camera, with billions of challenging buttons, adjustments and even the ability to shoot movies; a camera that, on one level, is easy to use in the point-and-shoot-way, but also gives me the potential to strike professional fear and envy in the whirring, clicking ghosts of Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell . . . should I ever learn how to properly use it.

“Ahhhh!” you sigh. “You must be experiencing untrammeled joy as you fly about the lovely California countryside snapping beautiful portraits of the gorgeous flora and fauna, the rainbow swirls emanating from those oh-so-pretty oil slicks! We bate our breaths for you to post your work on your elegant posting-site for us to see and sing praise!”

Uh , well, what I’ve actually been doing is taking photos of the Cat. That and nothing but.

It started out so innocently. I thought I was engaged in rational thought. The Cat, I figured, would be the perfect subject for a budding photographer: a pretty, photogenic creature that didn’t move too much and would not dart into the woods the second I zoomed in. Too stupid to even be vain, she would not notice when I left the lens cap on, nor snicker when the photos showed nothing more than a smudge of calico.

Photo #1: Yes . . . it always starts innocently . . . .

It seems that oblivious, dopey look fooled me.

Now, as evidenced here, I am absorbed. Obsessed. I cannot stop taking pictures of Flo. Flo lying on the bed. Flo sitting on the couch. Flo staring out the window from her house. All culminating in my directorial debut feature: the action-packed, ten-second epic
Flo Sitting on the Floor (with an intense performance by your truly as I try to persuade Flo to do something! A cult classic in the making!)

Perhaps, from looking at these photos, the first in the several hundred taken so far, you may gain some insight as to why a sane and sensible post-post modernist, artistically traditional, classical music fan would waste so much precious life force on something so relentlessly, disturbingly . . .

I hate cute. And this cat is an evil manifestation of cuteness: Evil, because Cats Make You Do Things. And the cuter they are, the more Things they make you do. Like eat up your hard drive with endless endless photos of them.

Those of you whose lives are entangled with these creatures know my meaning, right down to your DNA. I, for one, never intended to write what is dismissed by
litterateurs as a “Cat Column,” a form of feuilliton that should have been buried in the cultural landfill with Beatle-reunion rumors. (Even the innocent prefix litter- compels me to spring from my desk to check the Cat Box). When I started this series of online essays, I swore on a stack of E.B. White that I would never dare even think of competing with the world’s greatest (and only) regular Cat Columnist.

Photo #543. . . now you see why!

But while I have betrayed my word and your trust, allow me to mount a defense:

It’s all the Cat's fault. Remember: Cats Make You Do Things. As Jon Carroll and John Hodgman must share a spoon of blame for the existence of this forum, so Flo must bear responsibility on her small furry shoulders for the waste of an expensive camera and your precious time (Note,
in this portrait of Hodgman, the Looming Menace at the bottom! Yes! Hodgman knows!)

Photo #996: "Yeah, I'll watch the goddamn birdie alright . . . . "

This has gone too far, far past the point of feeding, brushing, petting, skritchy-skratching, and baby talk. Already, I have hounded—no mewed at the door of every Bay Area photo gallery for a chance to exhibit my nearly one thousand photos of Flo. (One gallery actually fed me a bowl of milk. Lucky I was thirsty.) Not since the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog has such a ruthlessly innocent and daft creature been the trigger of such bizarre behavior by your distressed correspondent.

This had better stop soon: Like, say, before I die. I can’t say I hold much hope. The way things are going, I may face reincarnation as a scratching post. Or a prized living room carpet. Either way, I hope you have the decency to keep
your puddy's claws well trimmed! Think of me for once, will you?

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Capering of Lost Demons

Beware the Faceless Deadly Sentinel!
“I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up in some way with red pepper which was very good but thirsty . . . . I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl’ . . . I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

-- Bram Stoker, Dracula

This last Wednesday, for the first time in decades, I “did” Halloween.

How did I “do” Halloween? First, I cooked dinner, the dish noted above, which Jonathan Harker orders in the town of Klausenburgh on the road to Castle Dracula. It turned out to be quite good (I exhumed my recipe from The New York Times cookbook). As we dined, Elizabeth and I enjoyed two fine movies, courtesy of Turner Classics: The Body Snatchers, one of Val Lewton’s great string of horror films from the 1940s with Boris Karloff (who is wonderful here) and Bela Lugosi (who’s not given enough to do); the next was James Whale’s droll, fiercely atmospheric, and little-seen The Old Dark House, from 1932, again with Karloff, plus Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Gloria Stuart (who, more than sixty years later, made quite a splash in a little B-picture I missed seeing a few years back, name of Titanic.)

That was it. We left the porch lights off. No costumes, no candy for costumed beggars and no costumed beggars, either. There was a pumpkin, but it sat on our front stoop, uncarved and unlit, like a plump orange paperweight.

For years, for me, Halloween was like St. Patrick’s Day: an occasion for hiding under the bed, out of the deadly swirl of maniacs, amateurs, and amateur maniacs. Am I getting conservative (in the old, non-debased meaning)? Probably. The last Halloween I spent out in public was in the notorious San Francisco Castro neighborhood, probably in 1986, helping to film a low-budget mockumentary. My most vivid memory of that occasion was of chasing a baby-skinned, bashful young blond boy, who wore naught but a body floss-style g-string, down the street through the roistering crowd. As I tried to persuade him to appear in our movie, the look in his eye at my pursuit bespoke terror (though I was fully, sensibly clothed, the Quasi-hippie from Heck). I wondered: What was he doing there in the first place, but to make a spectacle of himself? Good luck on keeping your secret, good buddy. It made the 11 O’clock News!

My only real true fond Halloween memory rises from Mohegan Lake, New York: walking along a country road on the hill high above the house on Red Mill Road, nine or ten years old in my blue nylon-polyester eagle costume; the sharp cold wind skittered the leaves along the dark road while, to the east, over the dark hills, a blood-orange moon stared from behind the bare branches of the trees, as fat and full as Dracula’s eye.

End of nostalgic moment. Maybe I “grew up;” got too self-serious about that kid’s stuff. Turned sensible and rational; or became too self-conscious and prone to embarrassment to rip loose. I made few feeble stabs at dressing like a Certain Gunfighting Movie Star, but no one trembled before my piercing stare, or my shoe-polished mustache and, really, I was just there for the booze, the buzz, and the girls.

But I hear you say: “Pshaw, Burchfield! Pshaw! You love horror fiction and movies! You have bored us numerous times with your geeky exegeses on the genre and have mightily leaped to the castle walls to defend it as a Serious Art Form (when it earns it). You have gathered friends together before flickering fires to read horror stories (at Christmas, no less)! Just last Saturday, while coming in the driveway—and a wee bit in your cups—you came upon some neighbors a-lighting their Halloween
pumpkins. Before you knew it, you had asked them if they have ever seen the Boris Karloff/James Whale Frankenstein. ‘No!’ they said and before another two hours had passed you had filled that need with your characteristic, often irritating, Mickey Rooney enthusiasm. And, once again, you made another convert! Pshaw, we say! Pshaw!”

All true. But ask me to throw on some costume, I don’t care how cheap or expensive, I don’t care how much it makes me look like Christopher Lee or Lee Van Cleef and . . . sorry, gotta read Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell. Session 9 is on. Have a good time! See you when you stagger home in the morning, Mr. Potato Head!

My attitude is a mystery to me, too, as much as why Dracula should fly so powerfully in the imaginations of millions in the first place. One clue: I’m no fan of camp. It’ll be a frosty day on the devil’s lap before I even consider casting a cold eye on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (no link to it, either. I left camp way back at the Soupy Sales Show.) My wild-ranging imagination stops at wearing leotards.

David Skal, in his book Death Makes a Holiday, suggests that this unruly, extra-legal holiday, from its origins as pagan holiday, through its awkward absorption by Christianity, has entirely floated away from its spiritual and mystical roots to morph into a completely secular bacchanalia of dis-inhibition, always tinselly and tawdry; whatever fear it does provoke it does by being sometimes actually dangerous to life and limb. Maybe it shares Christmas’ tragic fate to be kept true to its roots only by a comparatively small group of believers. It’s no longer about our relationship with Death, even for those who dress up as a ghoul (and especially for those who flounce about as Mrs. Potato Head).

Like all our traditional holidays (and our religions, too), Halloween’s origins were rural and now that so many of us are non-rural, it has become urbanized, floating free from its roots and dissolving, I hate to say it, into self-referential post-modernism. Just a joke, folks! Ha. Ha. Ho. Ho. Wink. Wink. Boo.

While Halloween seems to stir plenty of paranoia and indignant moralism, for the huge majority, at least in this country, it’s about switching the boundaries of identity, or at least blurring them. Geek-boy gets to become Spiderman; the Bookworm gets to be Elvira, (though s/he may need a set of serious Super Falsies, while Spiderman better get himself into a girdle and then find a way to hide the panty line). Some pretend to transgress the Rules, but no one really does, except for real criminals, who hardly need a holiday.

I take fear, in the artistic sense, seriously and I want it served up that way. Consider that UFO poster that hung in Fox Mulder’s office in The X-Files that cried: “I Want to Believe!”

And so do I, though I must emphasize I do not believe in the physical existence of supernatural phenomena or UFOs (Furthermore, I’m not voting for Dennis Kucinich.) As I’ve said elsewhere, very few horror artists and writers possess any standard transcendent faith at all; most seem to be agnostics or atheists, H.P. Lovecraft being the most famous example, Russell Kirk, a famous rare exception.

What I do mean is I want to be hypnotized and seduced into believing, for a time, into that unique world of anticipation, dread and awe. I crave that sense of standing on the edge of a dark chasm, surrounded by the dangerous mystique of something unfathomable, perversely sweet, dangerous to both body and—especially—sanity. And eternally mysterious, like life and death themselves.

Except for comedy, no genre is easier to film, or write, badly, but I believe that horror, in the hands of poets, in art, beyond its immediate shivers, can also give us perspective on the human condition. A real frightening experience, for instance an act of violence or, or an accident, has never permitted me perspective—in my own moments, I am in pure survival mode, all lizard brain. I’m not wondering or mystified about anything. When I escape I’m grateful to be alive. My only questions revolve around Dirty Harry fantasies. I might angrily ask why—or maybe why not—me? And
will it happen again?

Some examples of what I mean by horror that works: the anguished loneliness of Eleanor Lance, as she succumbs to the perverse architecture of Hill House in both the book and first film version of The Haunting; the crumbling of Miss Giddins’ spinster’s psyche as she finds her own secret guilty dreams staring back at her from the fog-shadowed landscape of The Innocents (based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James); the four old men of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story who tremble as militant demons attack their privileged white male bourgeois ground, demons they themselves have roused from their own hidden souls. “I am you,” one ghost tells them. Truer words . . truer words . . . .

And there are those extravagant, wonderful archetypes: Boris Karloff’s sense of childlike and brute alienation as the Frankenstein Monster is as beautiful a piece of acting as any in the history of the medium and survives, like the monster itself, all the parodies that lumber after it. Lon Chaney Jr. may not have been a great actor, but in addition to its atmospheric style, what stays with us in The Wolf Man is the despair in Larry Talbot’s dog-like eyes he realizes his safe, proper upbringing has done little to save him, or those he loves, from the violence within. And even Bela Lugosi, as Dracula, moldy and slow as that film mostly is, brings perfect mystique to the amoral, capering freedom of the sociopath (and he doesn’t fly around in underpants like Superman).

So, I’ve opened my door to them and to Halloween, invited the holiday into my cultural life again, though in my own stubborn eccentric way. As indicated above, it turned out to be a good idea. I’ll do it again, too. I might even invite you next year, dear and patient reader.

I only ask one thing: save your money, retain your dignity, and leave the Scooby-Doo costume at home.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rest is Silents

A Certain Tramp in Niles Canyon
You’ll be pleased, maybe relieved, to learn that I not only got out of the house last Saturday, but I even escaped Emeryville. The occasion was a weekend celebration of number 53 in my march through life. The destination was a place that only a few of you have probably ever heard of: Niles, California.
Not named after Frasier Crane’s brother, Niles is a pleasing, sun-baked neighborhood nestled at the foot of the golden East Bay hills, northeast of San Jose, near the south end of San Francisco Bay. It was established as part of the Washington Township in the late 1840s. Its first brush with history came when the final tracks in the Transcontinental Railroad were laid there in about 1869 (for railroad buffs, Niles also has a reputable train museum and that particular line of track through lovely Niles Canyon is still in use.). Niles joined the city of Fremont in 1956.

From its railroad days, Niles napped peacefully in the back pages of history until 1912. That was when a Chicago-based film studio, The Essanay Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, was drawn by our monotonously pleasant weather to build a West Coast studio production facility in downtown Niles.

Essanay (the name comes from the last-name initials of the company’s founders, George K. Spoor and G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson) produced, according to David Kiehn of the Essanay’s Silent Film Museum Essanay Chronicle, up to 2,000 movies during their ten-year history. Among these films (unless someone’s pranked the Wikipedia entry) are the first Sherlock Holmes movie, the first
A Christmas Carol adaptation and the first movie about Jesse James (in fact, Westerns seem to have been their bread-and-butter; their "Broncho Billy" western movies alone total around 376 movies.) Among their stars: Keanu Reeves, Brittany Spears, Vin Diesel—oops, sorry . . . darn that Wikipedia! Start over!

Among the Essanay stars who sparkled in the company’s firmament were cross-eyed Ben Turpin, burly Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, Tom Mix, the “A” in the Essanay “Broncho Billy” Anderson (also the movies' first cowboy star), and one Really Really Famous Guy I’ll discuss down page.

Of Essanay’s 2,000 films, only about 200 seem to have survived time’s relentless wheel (or, to make it hurt even more, about 1800 Essanay films have been lost; in fact, it has been said, about 90% of all silent era films have gone to Buddha).

Elizabeth and I first visited Niles and the Essanay Film Museum, located right on Niles’ Main Street, early this year. The museum is located in the old Edison Theater, the neighborhood movie house where Anderson and company would come by to watch the films released by their competition. (The production company itself, located a block away in what’s now a vacant lot, had its own screening room.) It still has the original fire-proofed (with tin) projection booth. Their display cases contain various costume artifacts—like all glimpses of the past, they were tantalizing, frustrating, and poignant.

The staff is warm and friendly and, like all of us geeks everywhere, they rained down upon us all manner of fascinating and endearing trivia. Their enthusiastic docent marched us through their nooks and crannies. Before I could stop her, Elizabeth drew her checkbook and fired off a year’s worth of membership for the both of us. (Like many similar nonprofits, the museum is in a perpetual and cash-strapped state of restoration.) My favorite part was the large library of hardcover photoplay editions of famous novels made into films, including The Maltese Falcon. I had to sew my hands inside my pockets as we explored the gift shop.

Buster Keaton in full dress

The first program we attended was a showing of Buster Keaton’s astounding (an adjective that glues well to so much of his work)
Steamboat Bill, Jr., plus a very funny short by the Keaton’s close friend, the amazingly light-footed and tragic Fatty Arbuckle. Both movies were accompanied by an excellent live pianist and the Edison Theater, which seats around 130, was packed.

It felt not so much like a night at the movies, as a night at a community center. Not everyone knew everyone, but it felt like it did. The screenings were conducted with a pleasing informality, right down to emcees Tommy Andrew and former MPAA archivist Sam Gill. A drawing was held giving away various gift shop items. My normally icy heart was further warmed by the presence of quite a few youngsters, none of whom seemed to think their parents were trying to turn them into old people by making them watch old movies. We took home a warm glow and left a promise to come again.

Promise kept: last weekend we attended the Edison Theater’s showing of a movie by that Really Really Famous Guy, name of Charlie Chaplin.
The Adventurer (1917) was produced a couple of years after Chaplin concluded his rather unhappy five-film contract with Essanay, a period that produced his signature classic The Tramp with its iconic image of the title character walking alone through Niles Canyon. Chaplin never took to Niles’ isolation and small town ways. Worse, George K. Spoor had never heard of the world-famous Chaplin. Learning of the huge fees they were paying the Master, Spoor demanded that Broncho Billy, who hired Chaplin, get rid of him. It’s said that this disagreement alone led to Essanay’s end a short time later.

Again we were emceed by Tommy Andrew and Sam Gill (plus a woman whose name unfortunately escapes me), with vigorous piano accompaniment this time by the estimable Frederick Hodges. And, as before, a drawing was held to give away various prizes, with a special section for the kids in attendance, who again, didn’t look like they wished they were home swinging their Wiis around the living room. Attendance was announced to be 129.

Harold Lloyd in trouble
The screenings continued with Harold Lloyd’s Number Please (1922) and Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck (1921), the print of which is, unfortunately, in bad shape, though the movie is still funny and ingenious in the way only Keaton can be.

To my mind, the best was saved for last as we were paid a visit by the always welcome Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in one of their classic extravaganzas of tit-for-tat destruction,
Two Tars (1928). I can think of no other performers who better leave their audiences in an affectionate glow.

Laurel and Hardy in full destructive mode
The Niles Essanay Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Boulevard in Fremont and their website is here, though it is still under construction in spots. Program are usually held each Saturday, though this coming weekend is their international film weekend which runs Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 4, and features such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Fritz Lang’s Spies.

Go! And if you cannot, then weep!

Thanks to Dorothy Bradley of the Essanay Silent Film Museum for her help.)

(re-edited 3/19/13)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Charlie, Not Jackie

Chang Apana: The Real-Life Charlie Chan

Humble apologies for going missing last week, but a major editing project turned out to be harder than expected: a 600-page book about Jesuit missionaries that was a whole lot more interesting than, say, The Mission, but burdened with 84 pages of bibliography and over a hundred pages of footnotes that had to be cross-referenced, line by line: By the time I was done, my brain felt like a bag of crushed peanuts.

But now you may all doff your sackcloth and ashes and rest your hoarse and sorrowful cries. I have returned to once more guide you to my snug—maybe a little too snug--cozy den of iniquitous vintage literature.

I finished reading that Charlie Chan mystery novel, The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers, I alluded to in a recent posting on the differences between reading literary and genre fiction. Verdict: Not bad. Not bad at all.

Most of us remember Charlie Chan from the forty-four movies that were produced during the 1930s and 1940s. You may also be aware of the modern controversy over their racism, most of it, as I see it, due to the failure of the studios to cast a Chinese-American actor in the role. (Come now: would that have been so hard?)

One main effect of the Charlie Chan movies seems to have been to bury the original novels in obscurity. This may be too bad. I read one of them, Behind That Curtain, too many years ago to reveal without embarrassment and now remember nothing about it. But The Black Camel does a much better job of sticking in the memory.

The Black Camel was published in 1931, and is set in late-1920s Honolulu, Hawaii. Taking a third-person point of view, Biggers sets the stage by gracefully introducing readers to the murder victim—a fading Hollywood star—and the large cast of suspects, most of whom have one motive or another for fading out her career even faster.

As in all mystery fiction, it’s the character of the problem solver who’s the draw, and problem solver Mr. Charlie Chan enters the mystery early on, fortunately. Said to be inspired by the real-life Chang Apana, (pictured above) a legendary detective in the Honolulu Police Department, the literary Chan is a true pip and stands favorably apart from the somewhat mummified Mandarin screen persona.

The literary Charlie Chan is as witty as he is wise and a little bit edgy, too. “By heaven,” one character melodramatically swears. “I’ll get him if it’s the last act of my life!” “I have similar ambition,” Chan drolly tells him, “though I trust the accomplishment will not finish off my existence.” The humor cuts others cruelly: “If you return with a pretty picture,” he seethes at a hapless assistant, “I will personally escort you back to private life.”

He’s also a man upon whose large shoulders the world hangs heavy. There’s no stereotypical serenity about him; his famous sense of humility also arises from his own errors—more literary detectives need to screw up from time to time--and his lot in life, as it comes from ideas about Chinese cultural tradition. Unlike a lot of fictional detectives, Charles Chan has a home life, but not necessarily a happy one: he's overwhelmed patriarch of a noisy, self-absorbed brood of a dozen-plus offspring that anyone who’s parented in the last eighty years might recognize. Like the fount of them all, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan finds true happiness only when he’s on the hunt.

Biggers creates a portrait of a brilliant man who is beset by serious anxiety attacks and doubts about his own considerable skills. Clearly, Charlie Chan is the smartest man in the Hawaiian Islands, but Biggers wisely makes sure that Chan himself doesn’t absolutely share that opinion and so keeps him human, rather than having him floats Buddha-like over everything. His humility, of course, also serves as a tool to dupe his quarry, who is revealed in a reasonably satisfying and surprising ending.

Biggers is not a racist. A remark about “a heathen race” inspires Charlie to sneer, “Yes, a heathen race that was inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were beating one another over head with spike clubs.” I did look in vain for any allusions to American colonialism (In fact, significantly, Native Hawaiians seem hardly to appear at all).

Well-crafted and entertaining as it is, The Black Camel doesn’t transcend its genre origins, though Chan’s character has more to him than most other fictional gumshoes of the era. The author’s description of 1920s Honolulu are aromatic, but he occasionally strains to gild those Hawaiian blossoms and it’s not a pretty sight. The dialogue, at times, is dated and execrable: True, Asian people may very well have spoken in pidgin English, but it still makes contemporary reading ears cringe. The story’s romantic leads are an annoying and cloying couple of white-bread gee-whizzers I hoped would either turn up dead . . . or turn out to be the bad guys.

Earl Derr Biggers wrote only six Charlie Chan novels before dying of a heart attack in 1933. The Black Camel is said to be among the best of them. But the most surprising aspect of this Grosset & Dunlap edition for me was this volume's its back pages. As it turns out, The Black Camel was not quite the rare first edition I’d hoped I’d snapped up cheap, but a reprint: the back matter catalogs many other books that were for sale, including the subsequent Chan novels. Most of the catalog listed writers long and profoundly forgotten—the Western novels for sale back then are mind-boggling: How could any bibliophile pass on William MacLeod Raine’s Oh, You Tex! and Chip of the Flying U by B. M. Bower? Hey! According to Albris Books, the second of those two lost classics is available for purchase! Now . . . how do I explain this one to Elizabeth?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Watch the Light!

I love the Fall. I love the Autumn.

My love is challenged these days, but I do not blame the season; it is not a fickle lover. I do not jab an accusing finger as this time of year like a seething, resentful, heart-shattered idealist: “You did it! It’s your fault! You have betrayed ME! You have failed to live up to my High Standards! You’re responsible for disappointing me! Away with Thee and never throw Thy Shadow ‘Crost my doorstep agayn!”

No, my low love-levels for this turning of the season have more to do with my current location and monkish life-style. Both darling Elizabeth’s and my employment keep us tethered to Emeryville, which jealously throws a cloak of dusty concrete over any beauty that foolishly shows its face. Already its ugliness crowds my rear window, greedily slurping its chops at this last tiny redoubt of green trees and gardens that surround me, whispering to The Master Planners: “We’ve driven away all those annoying twittering birds . . . now if we can kill all those green trees, we can construct a shopping mall to service all the Lovely Condos we are a-building. It will be the Most Beautiful Thing That Ever Was! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!”

Back to reverie: My love for fall starts with Fall’s light—the only thing Emeryville cannot suppress, no matter how much money it throws at the problem—the sharp and limpid tone, actually musical, brought in part by the Sun’s passing to the North on its East to West sweep as it grows lower and lower toward the horizon. It is as though the air has been drained and cleansed by the impurities brought by the heavier air of summer. My soul grows lighter. Like a spring that follows an especially leaden winter, I feel wings swelling from within my shoulder bones and muscles and I pretend to see the earth sweep away from beneath my feet, with its streaming sweet yellow and umber colors.

But I cannot fly and this is the West Coast of California. Its temperate climate mutes all four Seasons, turning the climate in something like Goldilocks’s porridge: safe and almost flavorless with only small variations in temperature, precipitation and, yes, light and air. For many, probably the near-total majority, this is what makes the Bay Area so worthwhile: no blistering sweltering Summers; no grim, depressing mid- to late-Winters. (Want flavor? You’ll have to drive all the way to Eastern Sierras for the aspens, per this favorite writer’s cheerful guidance.)

Yes, the Seasons of Earth’s higher latitudes can be very bad, I do remember distinctly. But nothing, not even the taste of a favorite food, sparks memories in me like the Seasons, in all their faces. I hail from where the Summers could be like sleeping under wet, heated wool and the Winters, after the first magic, became cold, granite,sunless caves, where we shrieked our prayers for escape. But the Springs and the Falls were as I’ve described them above: full of both radical delight and subtle tones; the extreme bad led to extreme ecstasy and a deeper awareness of birth, death and time.

Pretentious? OK, so, sigh, shoot me and cremate me in a pile of burning leaves. I still say Spring tastes like sap oozing from a maple tree, while Fall tastes like cold, sweet stream water. In Mohegan Lake, New York, and even in dreary Oshkosh, Wisconsin—one of the Emeryvilles of that otherwise underestimated United State, I could feel that taste in my skin. It was like synesthesia: one sense swimming with another. The bright, sun-kissed orange of the turning maple and elm leaves made the world indoors feel cozier. The smells of rotting leaves or roasted turkey and pumpkin pie, or the sight of grinning candled pumpkins under a full, screaming orange moon, does make a brain turn inward to its soul where I sometimes find, as the poet Keats describes it, a “mellow fruitfulness.” The city makes Death fall like a trowel and seem like the End of Everything, but, when woven inevitably into the tapestry of nature, Death seems like a miraculous turn of a Great Wheel. Autumn warns that things will get worse for a time, but nevertheless Life will come around again, be worth celebrating.

Under this circumstance, nostalgia is not a bad thing. As my youth draws further into the past and the sad memory of what is lost—in the sense of the experiences I missed, passed on, or failed to be attentive to—brings into sharp relief those sadly few experiences that stay with me. On me, at least, it actually has the opposite effect of what happens to a lot of folks: instead of grim, bitter resignation to aging and mortality, a sharp, even angry, and great hunger arises. The seasons remind me that yeah, times passes but much in this rounded ball of awareness called life remains to be done. Spring will come. I’d better be ready.


In other matters: one of my oldest friends and enthusiastic reader of these feuilletons, famous knock-'em-dead, banned-in-Oshkosh (we're both proud to say), stage hypnotist John-Ivan Palmer is unable to sign on to the Comments section of this service, and so e-mails his responses to me. One of them, in response to last week’s posting on Ken Burn’s The War, provides a different, important perspective as follows. (As you will see, John's not a bad writer himself):

“When I was recovering from my operation, I spent a week listening to a series of lectures on World War II by Thomas Childers (University of Pennsylvania). It was more a study of the strategic causes and effects, rather than a "people's history." One thing Childers pointed out was that WWII was largely a war of racism on all sides. The Germans looked down on everyone not Aryan, the Japanese looked down on everyone not Japanese, and the Americans didn't want their colonial sphere of influence in Asia taken over by Yellow People. Hardships and personal stories notwithstanding, this was the emotional fuel behind the largest event in human history, with 50 million dead. Some older people still refer to the "Japs" or "Jap cars," even in front of Harue, [John’s Japanese wife] not realizing they are parroting 60-year-old racist propaganda. And as a reading of Tom Bradley will readily show, a significant number of Japanese today aren't much different.”

[And an Apology: I forgot to "BLIND COPY" my reminder of last week's posting
to many of you. My deep apologies to any of you who were inconvenienced and annoyed. I will strive to see that it does not happen again!]

Sunday, September 30, 2007

When Things Didn't Seem So Lonely

This baby boomer has no stories to pass on from my elders’ experience of World War II. My father earned an exemption because of his scientific expertise regarding rubber—an extremely important war commodity in desperately short supply. (I used to joke he invented the latex condom.) He actually served by working in U.S. Government labs, finding ways of isolating synthetic rubber compounds from natural ones. His experiences, course, did not make the cut in Ken Burns’ lovely,elegiac epic documentary The War (It would be um a stretch if they did). But the heart of the experience of millions of other American citizens did.

The War is just starting to run its final episodes on American PBS stations as you read this. For those of you that have missed it (namely my international readers), the film tells this epic tale mostly from the viewpoints of American men and women, in and out of uniform, from
four American towns. Not only did Ken Burns not draw witnesses from the big cities of the day ( in old Hollywood WW II movies, half the front line grunts seem to be Brooklynites and are played by either William Bendix, Dane Clark or George Tobias) he also kept the point of view at ground level. There are no interviews with anyone much above the rank of lieutenant, and no noted scholars or experts, beyond front line soldier and author Paul Fussell, author of the provocatively titled Thank God for the Atom Bomb.

This approach is perfectly commendable: The War’s goal is to concentrate on those Americans caught at the bloody crux, those who learn the lessons that, in the words of Fussell, “can be learned nowhere else.” Burns tries to capture the universal human essence of all wars as experienced by those who have had to fight in them from Peloponnesia to Iraq.

But, honestly and reluctantly, I have to say that, at the eight-plus hour mark, I’m feeling a certain monotony setting in from time-to-time as the film heads into the final years of the conflict.

To make my point, I’ll hearken back to Burn’s masterpiece The Civil War. At eleven hours, that chronicle is not as long as The War will be, but it’s plenty long enough. What saved it from ever becoming boring was its attempt to capture all points of view, civilian and soldier, from the sufferings of slaves up the line to Abraham Lincoln himself. Every different point of view opened another window and brought another shift in tone on this great and terrible historic episode. The parade of experts brought shifts in perspective, so the film never seemed to fall into a rut.

But The War presents only its one general point of view. The why and how about the decisions that were made—both brilliant and stupid—are treated in a fly-over fashion. Most of the time is given to the front line soldiers (much of the footage hasn’t been seen since the war itself), while the rest is spent with those who worked and waited in agony at the home front. Each sequence is beautiful and moving, but when shown all together for eight hours, I find myself wishing for a different take on things.

I keep wanting to know more about the arguments among FDR, Churchill and Josef Stalin about the timing of the Normandy invasion. What were the tortuous twists and turns of Roosevelt and Churchill’s decision to ally the West with Stalin, who beats out his former ally Hitler himself as the most evil and bloodthirsty tyrant of all, based on the numbers. What were the feelings of Generals Eisenhower and Bradley as they sent their troops off to fight and die? I don’t believe all political and military commanders to be machine-tooled sociopaths: their decisions involved their emotions and they deserve explication, too. (Ken Burns appeared on The Daily Show the other night and explained his approach; he seemed to be clearly aware of these concerns.)

One more thing: Burns was criticized for failing to present the point of view of those Mexican-Americans who served in great numbers. He responded by adding a few Mexican-American veterans, but these are soldiers who lived outside of the documentary’s target geographical area and the sequences feel just that: added on. Why couldn’t they find at least a few living Hispanic veterans from Sacramento, California, one of the four featured towns.

Still, The War is tremendous and worth everyone’s while, even with its dull stretches. I’ve written in an earlier posting (July 1, 2007) about nostalgia’s perils and this documentary, showing the raw face of war, clearly portrays the pitfalls of sticking candy-colored glasses on the face of the past. But as I said earlier, what makes nostalgia still valuable is how the past can enhance and make meaningful the present (and I don’t anticipate any future nostalgia for our current era.)

During The Daily Show interview, Ken Burns stated that The War doesn’t have a political bone in its body. But, watching it, it’s impossible not to think about politics and what we’re going through now. Because The War does evoke the honest kind of nostalgia about something that America had then and doesn’t have now: the overall sense of purpose and sacrifice that most people had, a sense shared even by most of those who were otherwise ill-treated by American society (Meaning African- and Japanese Americans). From this perspective, people didn’t seem as lonely, alienated, and atomized as they do now. People had to turn to each other, rely on each other, and they did.

That sense of shared purpose and sacrifice seems far far away now. Of course, no one wishes for something like World War II to ever happen again (except for the usual crowd of sentimental reactionary infants and suicidal nihilists), and no matter how rough things seem now, it hasn’t happened yet.

But should things get that bad—say if Jihadists achieve their dream of taking over another government and whipping together a mass army while our current leadership blunders on in its astonishing belief that turning everyone into a foe (including your own citizens!) is the road to security (“Ohhhhh stop worrying! Moldova’s with us!”)—we won’t be ready at all.

Instead of FDR, Churchill and the alliances that they both struggled and strove to forge around the globe, we have . . . I’m afraid clever metaphors fail me, (though I’d be happy to expend endless pages comparing FDR et al with our current crop of bumbling bullies). Uncle Sam definitely does not seem to want us at all: “Shut Up and Shop” is the battle cry these days.

And it’s not all the Cheney Administration’s fault (though they are a joy to blame, aren’t they?): the lack of a draft and our exploding population, which has risen hand-in-hand with our exploding technology, have allowed us to raise unique barriers between ourselves and the reality of what’s going. Thanks to the white noise of modern media, maybe we can’t avoid news of Iraq, but we can create a world where we can believe any damn crackpot notion we want about it . . . at least until it’s someone we know that comes home in a flag-draped coffin . . . or someone who is “disappeared” because they don’t look right and their funny name winds up on some paranoid’s arbitrary list.

This, finally, may be the true real-world value of Ken Burns’ The War: History never makes a perfect model for the future, but, at its best—and sure as hell, this film is an example--in its rhymes and echoes, it can point us in directions we should be going, as individuals, as a nation and, as a world.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Readers: Their Subspecies and Behaviors

A good book is a good book is a . . .

A couple of weeks ago, the online magazine Slate hosted a celebration and discussion of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. During this online roundtable, book critic Meghan O’Rourke made this observation: “I tend to imagine that Jack Kerouac didn't approve much of literary criticism, avid reader though he was.” (Italics mine).

That term “avid reader” made me ask, what other kinds of readers are there? There are of course, the non-readers: some of them are indifferent to reading and books; and then those others who wouldn’t open a book if  had instructions on how to save their own lives. “I never took that up that habit!” one sneered at me as though I were shooting heroin in front of the children.

There are the non-avid readers, the professionals of all stripes who read because their livelihoods depend on it, but once that chore is done, it’s off to Sunday NFL or Doom or the Sims. (One exception: President Cheney’s assistant who, last year, engaged in the odd practice of “Competitive” reading with that former White House aide who looks like a giant infant; I lay odds that both their retention rates were pretty low).

Now, let’s step up to the third level of readers, and back to the first clause in Ms. O’Rourke’s sentence: “Jack Kerouac didn’t much approve much of literary criticism, avid reader, though he was.” (Again, italics mine). This seems to imply that avid readers are those who also pay serious attention to literary criticism, but I think Ms. O’Rourke may be wrong. She may have meant another subcategory: those readers who do approve of literary criticism and take it with the utmost seriousness: Let’s call them “serious readers.”

Webster’s 11th defines “avid” as one who is “characterized by enthusiasm and vigorous pursuit.” It may also mean someone tolerant, adventuresome, and maybe even free-spirited. They may not pay much attention to “literary criticism” and when they do, it’s because they’re looking for a signpost or two to point them to their next destination or to keep track of a favorite author or genre.

I’ve not read On the Road and the Slate discussion doesn’t say what Kerouac’s reading tastes were, but I will lay a humble wager that, judging from his celebrated novel’s subject matter and setting, this avid reader and legendary author may well have been on a nodding acquaintance with  the Western novel, one of the more despised genres. As an avid reader, he may very well have devoured many genre novels—western, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction or classic. He may very well have wandered the world of fiction on the wings of the same free spirit that set him out on the open road.

Not so with most “serious readers” as I’ve known them. These folks are as discriminating as I am about the scotch I drink. For them, it’s high-minded novels only: the works of Trollope, Dickens (except for A Christmas Carol), Proust, Joyce,  Larry Woiwode, Ann Beattie, Francine Prose, among others. They can be as hot-headed as John McCain, as strict as a Christian mullah. Recently, Ruth Franklin, another Slate book reviewer, excoriated Pulitzer Prize Winner and genre champion Michael Chabon for trying to “drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”

Clearly, Michael Chabon isn’t a “serious” reader, either and we can safely bet that Ms. Franklin never poisons her eyes with a mystery novel and if she does, she probably keeps it hidden with the porn.

You readers, of course, know which subspecies I am. Do I oppose “serious literature?” like one of those knuckle-dragging reverse snobs (“Ha! I only read Shopping-and-Fucking Novels! Ha! I stare down from the balcony of my nose upon you miserly snobs!”)

Of course not. I’d be the blindest of fools and a worse hack than I am now if not for reading The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pale Fire, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Bend in the River and many more. I love books that “are good for me.” The sheer challenge of many of them is an inspiration in itself. Bring on Don Quixote! Bring on War and Peace!

Just last week, I snapped shut Elmore Leonard’s 1950s western The Bounty Hunter with a happy smile and whipped right around into Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel Mary (which promises to be the start of a long-lasting obsession with Nabokoviana). I did this without a blink. I suffered no helium swell of nobility. And I read both these books with an equal amount of attention (but not, I emphasize, the same kind.)

The puzzle for serious readers is how do I stand the cognitive dissonance? It’s not that there is no difference between “serious” literature” and “genre” literature (sadly, I haven’t the time, nor you the patience, for that discussion.) Because Leonard’s world, and his way of writing it, differs so much from Nabokov’s, (except for the employment of stream of consciousness; yes, it’s true.), his best books call on a different corner of my consciousness, call on me to exercise different brain muscles. I respond to Elmore Leonard with different thoughts and emotions, and different set of no-less
stringent standards. Genre readers can be as discriminating as any New York Review of Books critic.

To avid readers like myself, it’s not the categories that count, although I’m aware of them, but the specific work itself on its own terms. Call us anarchists, if you want. Genre hopping is an act of near-absolute freedom. It’s the freedom to turn from the crystalline world of homesick exiled Russians in 1920s Berlin to, say, the corkscrew supernatural Liverpool of horror master (and passionate Nabokov reader) Ramsey Campbell that inspires us. We seek new worlds, always, whether it be the Wild West or a windswept moor.

In this crowded world that seems to be turning more and more toward murderous and authoritarian absolutes, art and literature are likely the last bastions of freedom our souls can ever hope to find. It’s sure looking that way to me. The last thing us avid readers need is the hectoring of high-strung critics.

Gotta go, now. I hear a Charlie Chan mystery calling!

(Redited 3/13/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.