Saturday, July 14, 2012

Age Appropriate

On this blog I try not to get too preachy about the craft of writing. It seems presumptuous to me since the success or failure of a piece really lies in the mind of the reader. As a reader myself I’ve run across styles that other people enjoy which I find irritating (the increasing popularity of present tense style, for example).

I would like to comment, however, on something I find troubling mainly because it’s occurred again in a book I’ve recently read.

For the online book club that I moderate, Pioneer Page Turners, I recently chose the book The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice for discussion on live chat. I was a fan of Rice’s vampire fiction and her The Mummy or Ramses the Damned and I thought it would be interesting to see her take on the werewolf legend. It turned out to be neither interesting nor enjoyable but that can be a future post.

One of the issues I will address however is what I consider Rice’s difficulty with appreciating the age of her younger characters.

Now again this could simply be my observation but as I read the dialogue in the book it came off not so much as age appropriate to the character but rather as dialogue that a 70 year old person might speak which, of course, is what Anne is.

The character of Reuben Golding, for example, the young man who receives the “wolf gift” of transformation is 23 years old yet you wouldn’t know it from the dialogue. Now to be fair there does exist in the world precocious people; people who carry themselves older than their years. The character is from a wealthy family who has somehow managed to acquire a master’s degree in English by such a young age and to get a job as a well-respected reporter whose already covered a few big murder stories despite being on the job only several months. He’s fascinated by philosophy, old literature and classic architecture so would conceivably sku older than his years.

But he’s only 23. And where once 23 year olds were quoting old poetry and philosophy and were expected to be moving on with their own lives by the time they graduated, we live in a world now we’re 23 year olds are still considered children. Parents continue paying their way—education, health insurance, car insurance, etc., then complain about continuing to pay for them. Rice writes in almost desperate detail about the incredible computer set-up Reuben obtains for his new home, yet rarely is Reuben described as texting or taking part in any form of social media (walk down the street and see how many 20 year olds have their eyes glued to their phones, their thumbs working feverishly over the tiny key pad). Add to this the fact that prior to the attack by the werewolf Reuben lived at home with his parents, his mom refers to him still as “Baby Boy” and his brother refers to him as “Little Boy.” I’m gonna guess there would have been a touch more infantilizing here then the story and dialogue would suggest. Yet somehow we’re to believe that when he inherits a mansion by curious means (he leads a charmed life) he would have the fore sight to understand all the legal and social ramifications of owning a mansion. As the tale goes on, the reader would think that this 23 year old had lived alone in a mansion for decades, so comfortable is he.

Another character in the story is a youth who Reuben, in his wolfen form, saved from being beaten to death. Now Rice has set up Stuart’s precociousness even better than Rebuen’s. Stuart is 16 years old and managed to graduate high school two years early, is attending college and living on his own (away from his messed up mother and an abusive step father). He is portrayed as a genius and it seems fairly obvious that he’s also seen some things in his young life so one could understand him grasping concepts that most 16 year olds wouldn’t.

What threw me, however, were a few references he made. First there was Stuart’s use of the adage “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” I heard that when I was a kid…Four decades ago! I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve heard it this past decade. It’s a great saying, but one rarely used so how likely is a 16 year old to hear the saying enough times so that it becomes a normal part of his lexicon?

Quibbling? Perhaps. Stuart also has a hero he wants to emulate. Clarence Darrow. 

Now admittedly Darrow was a skilled lawyer and a fascinating character—Who died in 1938! Again, I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I’ve heard of this man’s name used as a cultural reference the past few decades. That is a sad fact. As is the fact that he wasn’t a part of any school subject’s curriculum when I was a kid. I doubt four decades later he’d make the list.

I once did a series of high school talks on my book Chicago’s Most Wanted. Most of the kids had no idea who John Dillinger was. Dillinger remained a cultural reference, if perhaps a vanishing one, when I was a kid. By the time Stuart was born in 1996 I doubt Dillinger was ever mentioned.

I bring Dillinger up because Stuart along with idolizing Darrow also knew the story of Bonnie and Clyde enough to reference their bullet ridden last drive when he was describing another incident.

As with the “angels fear to tread” comment, 16 year old Stuart referring to an event that happened 70 years prior seems somehow unreasonable.

Again, one can make the argument that Stuart is a history buff. He may have run across these references while reading an obscure history book on his own and they stuck with him.

And that’s a good argument. But there have been enough people and situations that have happened in Stuart’s own time let alone the few decades before he was born, that he could use as examples rather than digging out names of nearly a century before.

Interestingly, another book I chose for the chat presented me with the same problem several months before The Wolf Gift. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 features a 35 year old Jake Epping going back in time to save John Kennedy from assassination. It’s an interesting premise since the time portal always brings him to the same date in 1958. Jake must live as a man out of time for five years until the fateful date comes round. If he returns to 2011, when he goes back in time, it’s 1958 again.

Jake’s age in 2011 means that he was born in 1976. About 13 years after Kennedy was shot. When he came of age, punk rock, New Wave and eventually rap were the big styles of music. He grew up as the personal computer and the technology that followed was taking off. By the time 2011 came around, his was a 24 hour world of digital convenience.

Going back in time, living in the late 1950s and early 60s, would be a major culture shock for a 35 year old from 2011.

Yet you wouldn’t have known it by reading the account. He seemed to have no problem adjusting to driving the land yachts they called cars back then. 

He had no problem with not being able to obtain knowledge with a few clicks of the mouse. He fit right in at the 1958 high school he started teaching at to bide his time while waiting for 11/22/63.This man of the millennium didn’t even seem fazed by racial attitudes of the time, which differed strikingly than those in 2011 (though we seem to be devolving on that point culturally of late).

During one scene in a 1950s grocery store, it wasn’t a song from the 1980s or 90s he was quietly singing while waiting. It was a 1969 Rolling Stones song called “Honky Tonk Women” that, by the time he was of age to be conscious of it, was probably only heard on one of the oldies radio stations that were disappearing as talk radio infected the dial.

While reading the book, I didn’t get the sense of a 35 year old man from 2011 going back in time but rather a 64 year old writer, who grew up during that time, revisiting it.

Of course that’s not to say that this character would not know about the Rolling Stones. Jake might prefer classic rock. He might be someone so uncomfortable in his own time that he’d be fine stepping into this very foreign time.

But for both novels, the stories might have been more enjoyable if, as I read it, I could imagine a 23 or 16 or 35 year old and not a middle aged writer in the tales. 11/22/63 in particular would have been much more interesting if I got the feeling that Jake was truly a modern fish out of water trying to navigate a time he was not designed for. It’s fine to make a character precocious, or clever beyond their years. But age does often factor in how even the extraordinary view their surroundings. If you want to tell me about a 23 year old turning into a were wolf; or a 35 year old traveling through time, then give me characters who say and do things that are age appropriate.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Anne Rice's Wolf Gift

Aaawhoooooo!!!! (that's supposed to be a wolf howl, by the way),  I thought, since the reserve copy had come in for me, I'd take go with The Wolf Gift by Anne Rice as the next book for the next Pioneer Page Turners online book chat. As part of my duties with Pioneer Press, I moderate it's online book club. It's can be fun and gives me a chance to check into books I might not normally read or might not have time to read. The chats can fun and interesting as well, especially when we have a lot of people.
 I haven't read Anne Rice in a long time. I was quite fond of the vampire books. It's interesting that she's taking on the condition curiously closely related to vampirism in legend and stories: Lycanthropy.

So I wanted to invite anyone interested to take part in the chat which will be at 7 p.m. July 10. On that day you can visit the the Pioneer Page Turners blog and sign in to join the chat. In the meantime, feel free to stop by the blog and leave a comment. Hope to see you there. :)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Nuances rediscovered

This  blog is about so much. My work. The work of other people and how it influenced me. Yes, cause it's all about me. But actually, it isn't all about me. It's just easier, when you have a blog titled Literally Laura, to distill it into something that relates to me. I only wish my time was freer to post more.

As part of my duties with Pioneer Press, I moderate the paper's on line book club Pioneer Page Turners. It's a neat little idea dreamt up by Jeff Wisser, our former editor-in-chief (before corporate fiscal conservatism got the better of him) who wanted to figure out a way to get people to the paper chain's website. He tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "I'm thinking about an on line book club. What do you think?"

It seemed like a great idea, I just wasn't aware (though a teeny part of me had a feeling) that I'd be tapped as the moderator. I thought I was there in an advisory capacity (since I also work at a library and can find out how book clubs operate).

That was last October. Several books later, I'm the moderator of what I still think is a neat idea that I don't think other newspapers are doing. It taps into the promise of the Internet by offering an interactive experience for people. Every month we do a live on line chat of the book chosen for that round. People log into the Pioneer Page Turner's blog and sign up to take part. And it's been a lot of fun, leading me to read books I might not normally read, or even know about. This has been a challenge at times since my time availability for reading is very slight and consequently my love of reading has suffered for it the past several years.

Once in a while, a book will catch me just right. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example. Or The Hunger Games (which, while I wasn't overly fond of the writing as a whole, I thought the themes were something that certainly worth exploring). Sometimes, as with The Hunger Games, I've been surprised at how drawn in I've been with the book.

The book for May/June has been The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson and it has touched me in so many ways. I remember hearing about this event (which, according to Wilkerson lasted from 1915-1970) while doing research for my book Chicago's Most Wanted because there were aspects of that migration that affected the great city. Certainly, we would not have Chicago Blues and Chicago Jazz were it not for Southern blacks bringing that music up with them when they came North seeking a better life away from the Jim Crow system. On the negative side for Chicago, this migration would lead to overcrowding which would inspire unfortunate attempts at urban planning such as Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor Homes.

What struck me in particular about this book was just how much I didn't know about the time after Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. There were vital nuances to the story that were never covered in history classes I had as a child that would help explain so much about American society at the time and later. As I listened (I decided to listen to the book on CD, expertly read by Robin Miles) to the book, I actually grew infuriated. Not only by what these people were forced to endure in America, a country I absolutely love, but at what was missing from my learning about this important part of history. I felt in many regards cheated and I think curriculums that don't appropriately cover this fascinating part of history cheat their students out of learning about a dark period of our great country's history that went on far too long and was in no way worthy of the promise of America.

We have in this country now people, perhaps too far removed from those times to fully understand, who cannot fathom why there is still a slight divide between the races. Young people especially do not understand why certain segments of society might be mired in the situation it's mired in, never fully appreciating that it wasn't until the 1960s that the issue of apartheid in this country was at last attended to.

So I heartily recommend The Warmth of Other Suns as must reading and I can't help but be a little angry at those in charge of my education for denying me the chance to truly understand this vital time in the country's history (and before anyone gets cocky about how "terrible the public schools system is" let me say that for 8 years I attended a Catholic school that my parents paid highly for. So poor was the education from this school that not only did I escape with a poor knowledge of grammar and math, but even the Catholicism was spotty).

And in regards to this, I think the blog post I posted on the Pioneer Page Turners fully explains the anger I feel at how poorly this important story was covered in both my grade school and my high school. I can only hope this error has been attended to. So I offer it for your perusal.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Road to Kentucky Part II

Five weeks after leaving Chicago, the “H” appeared to me like a beacon of hope in an uncertain land. The Hilton Gardens Inn, Bowling Green. I had arrived. As exciting as the adventure had been, it was nice to finally arrive at my destination and I looked forward to settling in with a nice meal and a whisky sour, which for some reason I had a taste for (perhaps it was the many signs for distilleries that I saw on the way). Parking the car I ventured into the lobby of the hotel where a pleasant woman behind a pleasant desk pleasantly told me that she couldn’t find a reservation for me. Just my luck, I left the confirmation e-mail in the car, so venturing back out to get it I ventured back into the hotel and was told, pleasantly, that I’d actually ventured into the Bowling Green Holiday Inn which, interestingly enough is right across the street from my destination du jour, The Hilton Gardens Inn. So exited was I by the beaconistic H on the sign, that I didn’t actually read the name of the hotel beneath it. “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.”

Bundling my luggage back into the car, I pulled out of the Holiday inn lot and pulled into the Hilton lot and found a similarly pleasant lady behind a similarly pleasant desk who thankfully had a reservation for me. It’s been about two decades since I’ve stayed in a hotel. Friends and I used to stay over regularly at hotels when attending Beatlefest (which is what it used to be called) or one of the many science fiction conventions we used to attend. I suspect that, living with our parents during the 80s, the main reason my friends and I stayed over at these conventions, was because we were living with our parents at the time. Given a choice between spending Thanksgiving watching mom and dad fight between courses of Cold Duck or hanging out with geeks at a convention, the con won hands down every time.

I forgot how much I love the hotel experience. The crisp sheets, the 50 towels in the bathroom, the joy of room service. I went for a walk around the area, went to the bar and ordered my whisky sour, went back to the room and ordered room service which was brought to the room by the bartender (not a huge surprise since the restaurant area and bar was about the size of a small bedroom and wasn’t exactly packed at that moment.

I’m guessing Bowling Green is a great little burg to visit with a vibrant historical district and quaint areas of interest. I’m guessing this because my schedule didn’t permit much of a gander round town. I got there around 5:30 p.m. Friday and wasn’t much in the mood for more driving, so I hung out at the hotel, which was fine, me loving the hotel experience as I do. The next day, I was expected to get to the bookfest about 8:30 a.m. for check in so of course I got there at 10. This wasn’t necessarily my fault. While I’m guessing Bowling Green is vibrant historical and quaint areas of interest, the area I was staying looked more like a farm town. I was given directions to the convention center and left early Saturday morning, but I didn’t count on the fact that the town had decided to double name their streets. Driving north, a right turn might take you down Love Ave., while a left turn on the other side would take you down Dilly Drive. So if you’re supposed to go left on Dilly Drive and you’re looking out for it on your right, you ain’t gonna see it. You will see Love Ave. which mirrors Dilly Drive and if you only realized that, you might realize that was the intersection to make the left turn on.

Long story short (and short drive long) a 10 minute drive took me 90 minutes before I located the convention center. Once inside and registered, it was a fun afternoon. I sold and signed some Vampires’ Most Wanted and even sold some Chicago’s Most Wanted. It was nice to see the latter still had some steam to it. There were some big names there like Carl Hiaasen and Heather Graham but they were kept in their own enclosure up front for fear they’d get lose and tear up the place. They can get very excitable in a crowd. Yeah, that’s right, you know who you are Hiaasen.

Sitting next to me was an author named Amy Clark who wrote the book Success in Hill Country based on the oral histories of eleven natives of the Appalachain Mountains who went onto success. You always worry who you’ll be squished next to at these sorts of events, but Amy was a pleasant neighbour and we actually had a lot of fun. Plus, she has a doctorate, so she’s a scholar with credentials as opposed to me who’s a scholar because “I said so, so shut up!”

Another person I met was positioned two doors down the row and roamed by the name of Bertena Varney. She wrote the book Lure of the Vampire: A Pop Culture Reference Book of Lists, Websites and "Very Telling Personal Essays" and I wish I would have met before Vampires’ Most Wanted was published since I think her book would have been very helpful in researching mine. An interesting book to check out. As experiences go, it was most definitely an enjoyable one that I wouldn’t hesitate to do again (now that I know the way) once my vampire series is printed. All that was left was the long drive home Sunday. I had a chance to arrange my schedule, I would have stayed over a day or so for some sightseeing, but that wasn’t to be. I considered stopping at the local mall:
But then I thought better of it. It was a long drive home and I wanted to make it before sundown (cause that’s when the zombies come out. It’s a proven fact). A thousand Enrights cried for every distillery marker I passed by on 65 North. Every DNA strand in my body cried for me to stop and take a tour, but I couldn’t. Though, as I drove, I swore with each marker I passed that somehow, I would find my way back down to Kentucky and inhale the angel’s portion (and drink like a fish) from the distilleries I was unable to visit that Sunday.
As always happens, the ride home seemed to go quicker than the ride down. I left the sweet mountains of Kentucky for the flatland and billboards of Indiana (though I was looking forward to seeing the windmills again. I love those things). There is something surreal about driving across two or three states. At some point I stopped at a yogurt store for a comfort break and a cup of frozen yogurt (in that order) and had to ask the sales clerk if I was in Kentucky or Indiana. From his response it seemed as though I was at the tail of Indiana. I still had a drive ahead of me but I was filled with courage having made the first part of the trek with nary an incident. I entered Indiana wondering if I was going to stop at Illinois or if I’d just keep on driving wherever the road took me. I chose for my ride back home the printed directions from Mapquest. I was still bitter about the little joke Rand McNally (you know, the map people) played on me. And actually, as I neared the Indiana and Illinois border I found the directions a little simpler. So bite me Rand McNally. I crossed through post-war Berlin and made it into Chicago $5 lighter.

I was of course disappointed that I had forgotten to accidentally take the 73 Exit that would take me to the Lion’s Den Adult Super Store in Indiana, then I remembered the many resources available to me on the Internet and felt better. Besides, all I could concentrate on when I hit the Dan Ryan expressway was my supreme frustration at having to go down to 55 mph after driving several hours at 70. Add to this the fact that apparently everyone had chosen that moment to go back home and we were lucky to make it up to 25 most of the time, and I was fairly crawling out of my skin. So yes, after weeks of worry and uncertaintity, I made to and back from Kentucky in one piece. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I'll just have to remember that St. Louis/Louisville splits.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Road to Kentucky Part I

It was my privilege last month to be a part of the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I was asked to attend last year, but Vampires’ Most Wanted hadn’t been released on schedule, so the organizers were nice enough to let me attend this year. There was just one problem: Getting down to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

To understand the full implications of this trip it has to be remembered that for years now, the majority of my travels have been from point A. Park Ridge to Point B. Glenview and back with the occasional zip up to my sisters in point C. Grayslake. So a seven hour car trip alone to Kentucky seemed a bit imposing. But what was I to do? My public was out there waiting. How could I disappoint them?

Screwing up my courage, April 21 I found myself on I90/94 east headed to the Skyway. I had gone to bed at 11:30 the previous night and fell asleep about a week later. It had been my plan to leave at 5 a.m. to avoid traffic so of course I left at 9 a.m. As I bumped around getting ready that morning, my cat Oliver (or “evil incarnate” as I like to call him) stared at me with uncertainty bordering on accusation. Just as they can smell your fear and know what you did last summer, they also have an uncanny knack to sense when they’re schedules are going to be put off even by a fraction of a moment. He was going to be without his favorite scratching post for three days and wasn’t too happy about it. Eventually I said goodbye, stitched up the claw wound, and went on my way. To my relief, since in Chicago rush hour usually lasts from 8 a.m. to 9:45 p.m., traffic was amazingly light on the Kennedy and I was able to leave town with little fanfare. Well, there was a slight issue on my way through Chicago, but nothing that some careful driving couldn’t help clear up.

I'd chosen as my guide for the trip printed up directions from Rand McNally. I also brought printed up directions from Mapquest, but I ran with Rand McNally because, well heck, you know...they’re the map people. Oh I know what you're thinking: Did I invest in any maps of the three states I would be driving through, and to this I say a hearty "No!" since I live by the edge of the seat of my pants, you see and common sense very rarely enters the picture. I’m an Enright! An Enright doesn’t make plans. They just put their faith in whatever god is convenient at that moment and plow ahead. No, I was on an adventure and nothing makes an adventure better than having no idea where you’re going! I rolled down the windows, cranked up the tunes, stepped on the gas and hoped for the best!

The Chicago Skyway is a 7.8 mile long bit of toll road leading to the Indiana Toll Road.  You're hit first with the $3.5 toll and once you're invested (i.e. have no way to get off) they pop you again with a $1.5 toll. Nicely played, boys. And in exchange for the $5 toll you get the privileged of experiencing what it must have been like entering post war Berlin of several decades ago (the overcast sky only added to the aura of hopelessness and desolation). Still, it was a decent drive as congestion goes and I found it quite relaxing.

Scenery, unfortunately, did not pick up when I crossed the border into Indiana.

I'm sure there are some lovely areas in the Hoosier State, but I seemed destined to miss every one. Indiana, like Illinois, is flat. Very flat. A quiet sea of flat land broken up only by the occasional grove of trees and spurts of billboards along the highway.

There are a lot of billboards along 65 South. Not much else, but plenty of billboards advertising hotels, restaurants, farm equipment, Jesus (nice to see him getting his name out there). The most curious billboard announced, “Billboard Space Now Available” which is an odd name for an establishment and didn’t really give me a clue as to what was offered there. One billboard announced that up ahead was a Children’s Museum which boasts a sample of every child ever known (and some only suspected). Then there was the billboard for the World’s Largest Flea Market, which I found a bit disconcerting not really being a big fan of the regular size fleas. But what I did think was nice was that, per the billboard, truckers were welcome.

Had I thought of it, I would have taken a fireworks order from friends and family because, since they’re legal in Indiana, they’re not bashful about announcing to the traveling public that “Fireworks are Sold Here.” Many of these “mini-Hiroshimas in the making” were installed in what looked like airplane hangars. If someone dropped their cigarette at the wrong place and time, the resulting explosion could take out half of Indiana. I could have also picked up some gifts for people from Lion’s Den Adult Super Store, the billboards of which sprouted every five feet and promised pleasure if you took Exit 73. You know honestly, they had me at “Adult” they only sweetened it with “Super.” I made a note to plan on making an accidental turn onto Exit 73 on the way back.

There are also, apparently, a lot of Cracker Barrels. Indiana and the south seemed rotten with them. Every other billboards is emblazoned with the promise that just a little further you will find the fine dining and shopping to be had at a Cracker Barrel. If Lion’s Den and Cracker Barrel merged they’d clean up. I just hope they wear protection. And clean up.

Day Four of my journey. It had been my intention not to stop, for anything, but rather to drive straight through to Bowling Green. I was assured by Rand McNally that the journey would take 6-7 hours but I grew worried that something was wrong and perhaps Kentucky might actually be a figment of someone’s overworked imagination. Either that or Indiana had swallowed it in a relentless march to the sea. So I finally pulled over to find a map and see if perhaps I had missed something (yes I’m an Enright, but I’m also a Gajewski, a people known for their worship of map technology and careful planning). Apparently, the exit I wanted, St. Louis/Louisville, was still about an hour away and Indiana wasn’t endless, it just seemed that way. Phew! on both counts.

Shortly after the stop, it was exciting to see a field of giant windmills looming across the land like an invading army. They were tall and strikingly-white against the purple backdrop of a storm-swollen sky. I thought for a moment that I’d accidentally drove into the pages of The War of the Worlds only this time it wasn’t destruction, but green energy the aliens were bringing to us. So numerous were the windmills that if a Koch brother drove through the field, they’d burst into flames. It’s a proven fact.

At last I saw what Rand McNally promised: The sign warning of the St. Louis/Louisville merge. And merge I did. Happily. Proudly. Without incident, continuing to drive in the direction of my objective. There was but one problem: Rand McNally neglected to warn me that at some point, St. Louis/Louisville would split and I would be expected to make a choice. One would think that would have been a key bit of information for them to include in the directions since, after all, they are the map people. But no, I was left to make the choice and let’s just say, I chose poorly, following the path to St. Louis and ultimately heading back toward Illinois. As hiccups go, this was a small one; a tiny inconvenience (made even more inconvenient by the stretch of highway I was on that didn’t offer a chance for me to exit so that I could turn around for about 30 minutes) and the rest of the directions were accurate. Never the less, I felt betrayed by Rand McNally. I trusted them since they are, after all, the map people. I hope one day I can bring myself to trust them again. It’ll take time.

The first things you notice about Kentucky, while driving 70 mph along the highway, are the mountains.  In fact it seemed like a good portion of 65 South had been threaded through mountains. A mosaic of cool greens and blues, and warm browns and reds. It’s a pretty sight after four hours of flatland. They rose in the distance and on the side of you and if I wasn’t going 70 mph along the highway I might have been tempted to stop along the side of the road and take a long, luxurious drink of them. But I was on a mission and was almost there. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride that, despite one wrong turn, I actually made it into Kentucky without a major problem. I had arrived! Well, not exactly. There were still a couple of hours until Bowling Green but I was close. Next stop, the Hilton Gardens Inn!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Southern Kentucky Book Fest

Well, after a bit of a trip, I'm now ensconced in the Hilton Garden Inn, Bowling Green, KY and preparing for the Southern Kentucky Book Fest tomorrow. Okay, who am I kidding. I've never been prepared in my life. But I am looking forward to hanging at the fest and signing copies of Vampires' Most Wanted. I've brought my red pens. The trip from Chicago was about 6 or 7 hours (not counting the wrong turn on 70W (which apparently takes you back to Illinois). Damn you, Rand McNally! I do regret not having taken another day for fun. The itinerary is drive down Friday, fest Saturday, and drive back Sunday. i would have liked to do some sort of sightseeing. Plus, I forgot how much I enjoy the hotel experience.

Travel notes have been made and hopefully a proper post is forthcoming. Hopefully.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Queen's English

I have a friend in Australia who often decries the state of the Queen’s English. Americans in particular, he claims, have mongrelized it to heart-breaking proportions. Yes, that’s what tends to happen when cultures collide and America has been a thick stew of colliding cultures for centuries.
My friend’s attitude makes me laugh. The Queen’s English? What Queen is he referring to here and for that matter, what of the King? Does each monarch get to choose the grammatical rules?
There’s this romantic notion about this nebulous thing known as “The King’s/Queen’s English.” English has been one of the most mongrelized languages on the planet long before it made its way across the ocean to America. Even in its “birth” place or perhaps more accurately, its first place of evolution, there is a variety of ways it’s spoken. A trip from top to bottom of England could require the Universal Translator to sort out the varying accents and syntax.
That’s not to say that Americans haven’t played fast and loose with the language. It needs to be remembered that rather than going out to conquer the world, we had the world flocking to our shores bringing with it a whole load of languages. There was bound to be a bit of shuffling.
But I urge all those bemoaning the mangling of the Queen’s English by the American tongue to go have a sit down with Shakespeare and see how happy he would be with their use of the language he used so cleverly. What do you think Chaucer might say if his Canterbury Tales were translated to modern English?
Go a little further and talk to King Richard. Or back further still and have a conversation with a druid who’s watching the Romans putting up strip malls where his sheep used to graze. I’m guessing communication would have to be a combination of hand signs and stick figures drawn on the ground.
English never was nor will it ever be an original language. Kings and Queens might love to think it is and produce rules to try to keep it as such, but the fact is that it’s so stuffed with French, Germanic, Celtic, Roman and other influences that one would be hard pressed to find a word that actually originated in England. Just because the English can turn a phrase with a wildly attractive accent doesn’t mean that the words they’re using, and the way their used, haven’t been borrowed from a variety of other sources. The English just did a better job at staking claim to them.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A New Year with the Marx Brothers

Every year I try to ring-in the New Year with the Marx Brothers.  It’s a tradition I started decades ago when I was a kid.  WTTW, our public broadcasting station, would show old movies on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s and it was where I was first exposed to these classic movies.  I was bowled over by them.  The slapstick of Harpo, the absurdity of…well pretty much anything that came out of Chico’s mouth, and the irreverence of Groucho that would lead him to romance Mrs. Teasdale in one breath, while insulting her in the next. Actually they all possessed that sort of irreverence, they just channeled it differently.  They went through life unphased by societal conventions and from what I understand it was the same off screen as it was on.  But then they had led a bit of a free-for-all life by the time their movie careers hit.  The Marx Brothers had been knocking around vaudeville for a couple of decades and were actually in or near their 40s (except for Zeppo, the baby of the family, who was 28) when they made their first movie, “The Cocoanuts” (1929).  It was based on a Broadway musical in which they also appeared.  They hit the silver screen at just the right time.  Before the advent of talkies two years before, Harpo and his silent physical humor might have been fine, but the verbal humor of Chico and Groucho wouldn’t have translated as well.  Conversely, if they had hit it several years later, Chico and Groucho might have been okay, but Harpo’s sort of physical shtick was bowing to more dialogue driven films.
It was the perfect mix at the right time and the chemistry that got them through all those years on stage was evident on screen even though they played characters who normally didn’t know each other (though Chico and Harpo’s characters usually had a friendship).  The jabs Chico and Harpo aimed at other people seemed almost accidental (or provoked by the victim’s arrogance).  At some point during the plots, they would fall into the orbit of Groucho’s character and the three ultimately conspired somehow to do something that would cause someone in high society great consternation.  Groucho’s jabs at his unsuspecting targets seemed meaner and unprovoked, perhaps in keeping with the off-stage, curmudgeon-like character of the comedian himself.
The three of them together were a physical example of vocabulary evolution, from the silent communication of Harpo, to the barely understandable verbiage of Chico, to Groucho, who used words with the swiftness of a snake and the precision of a surgeon.  Interestingly, in real life, Groucho had designs on being a doctor but his fortunes were with his family in show business.  Still he was an avid reader and writer, from articles, to letters. to books and even a play. 
There was often a musical cadence to his dialogue in the films which perhaps is in keeping with the musical talents of the three brothers.  Harpo, of course, played the harp and was considered quite a virtuoso even playing in Moscow as a good will ambassador.  It’s oddly appropriate that the devilish tramp he plays on film is able to sit behind a huge harp and produce such sweet melodies.  A focus overcomes him and suddenly nothing else exists but the man and his harp.

There wasn’t much of a transformation when Chico sat at the keys of a piano but that’s appropriate too.  His style of playing is raucous, rag time, the type of playing you’d find in a speak-easy, where you often found him both on and off screen and he carried that energy with him through life.  I once had a piano teacher tell me that the Chico Marx style of piano playing wasn’t the correct style of piano playing.  Who cares?  It was fun and it sounded great!  I don’t know if he could have played a Beethoven Sonata, but none of that mattered when he launched into a rousing rendition of one of the film’s main theme songs.  Later in life, he even toured with his own big-band.

Even Groucho got into the instrumental act when he played his version of “Everyone Says I Love You” from the film “Horse Feathers” on the guitar, an instrument he learned to play by ear (of the three, Chico was the only one who received lessons and he probably didn’t take those very seriously) and did quite a sturdy job of finger picking the song.

Their talent is particularly fascinating when you consider the fact that Chico was the only one to finish high school (and was probably absent more than present). The second oldest in the trio, Harpo, got through second grade while Groucho, the more academic of them, left before his 13th birthday.  Life, apparently, was their teacher.
When lists of classic films are released, the film “Duck Soup” (1933) ranks high and I concur whole heartedly.  But also on the list are two Marx Brother films which in the MB filmography, tend to overshadow films that I think are much more deserving.
After the release of “Duck Soup” the brothers left Paramount and were convinced by Irving Thalberg to sign with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At this point there was some talk that the group’s act might be over but Thalberg was able to revitalize their careers with two films, “A Night at the Opera” (1935) (ANATO) and “A Day at the Races” (1937) (ADATR).  These were two great films to be sure with some classic bits.  And Thalberg was perhaps intuitive when he believed that tempering the brothers’ mayhem with a substantial romantic subplot would play better to a movie-going public that had changed since “The Cocoanuts” had hit the screen.  It worked (though sadly Thalberg’s sudden death in 1936 left them without an advocate at the studio and their careers suffered for it).
One reason I find these two films weaker than their previous films is because, for me, romance doesn’t just temper them, it waters them down completely.  Thalberg made them sympathetic and thus more acceptable to an evolving movie audience, yet he also blunted the absurd wit that made them so different and fun to watch in the first place.  Not that I mind sympathetic characters, it's just that's not the strong suit of these guys.
The brothers’ first two films, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” (1930) were both based on Broadway musicals and also had romantic subplots with two rather banal lovers singing swooning tunes to each other.  Still, these subplots, though time stealers, were kept from burdening the film too much by the sheer crazed force of the brothers themselves.  The schmaltz was properly balanced (unlike with “ANATO” and “ADATR”).
I love these two movies and I enjoy “ANATO” and “ADATR” but I would have to say that for me, along with “Duck Soup” the best movies the Marx Brothers made are two that are often ignored or much lower on the list when the lists are compiled.   “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Horse Feathers” (1932).  These are the first two movies written specifically for the Marx Brothers (as opposed to being stage plays turned into a Marx Brothers movie).  And along with “Duck Soup” any romance in them (such as it is) involves a Marx Brother so the storyline moves more seamlessly.
Let’s talk Zeppo for a moment.  I’ve concentrated on the other three, but in the beginning of their film career they were billed as The Four Marx Brothers because, until they moved to MGM, Zeppo was a part of the films.  Zeppo had been tooling around vaudeville with his much older brothers, often filling in for them (he could imitate all of them) if they were unable to perform.  In the films he often played Groucho’s assistant (often his foil) and did a good job at it. 

Who knows why he didn’t develop a character as his brothers did?  Who knows if he truly even wanted to be in the act?  But “Monkey Business” suggests a perfect role for him to play to remain in the films:  That of romantic lead.  He was certainly handsome enough for it and given more material, a stronger screen presence may just have emerged.  In “Monkey Business”, he and his brothers play stow-aways aboard a cruise ship that also carries a gangster and his daughter coming back (presumably) to America.  Along the way, two of the brothers are tapped to work for one gangster while two are tapped to work for his enemy, also on the ship.  The end result is that none of the brothers do a heck of a lot of work for anyone.  While running away from ship’s security, Zeppo has a “meet-cute” with the gangster’s daughter and the two fall for each other.  The film culminates with the daughter being kidnapped by enemies of the gangster and the brothers going to free her, Zeppo the only one actually putting any effort into it as he dukes it out with a kidnapper.
In “Horse Feathers” he plays the son of Groucho’s college president character, who also happens to be romancing the college widow.  The romance is not quite so sweet in this one (especially since the college widow, as played by Thelma Todd, seems to be open to romancing anyone), and his role much smaller, but Zeppo again shows that he can at least hold his own in a movie if given more to work with.  I suspect that one reason he left the group was because by the time “Duck Soup” came about again, he was back to playing Groucho’s assistant, given minimal dialogue or business to do, and didn’t see much point in continuing on (he would go on to a career as a theatrical agent).
In “Duck Soup” the romance angle seemed to go instead to Groucho who spends a good portion of the film alternating between insulting Mrs. Teasdale and asking her to marry him.  It was a game he played in the first two, but not to such vigorous proportions as in “Duck Soup.”  This movie fully reveals the mastery Groucho had with a line.  It wasn’t just the way he said it, it was the tone of his voice and his body language.  It was completely natural.  He could turn on a dime, as when he asks Mrs. Teasdale for a lock of her hair, then tells her, “I’m letting you off easy.  I was going to ask for the whole wig.”  Or when, as the newly installed president of Freedonia, he asks Ambassador Trentino, “So how about paying us that $20 million you owe, skinflint.”  There’s no mugging for the camera, or wacky tone in his voice even though the ridiculousness of the leader of a country calling another country’s ambassador “skinflint” is clearly there.
As pure Marx Brothers movies, “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” and “Duck Soup” let the brothers do what they did best, without having to stop the energy for drippy love-bird songs or forcing them to blunt the sharpness of their skills.  Aside from the obligatory Chico piano and Harpo harp solos, there are no musical numbers in “Monkey Business” (though there is a hilarious reoccurring dance number between Groucho and Thelma Todd); while “Horse Feathers,” aside from Groucho’s opening number as he takes over presidency of the school, has only one other song, “Everyone Says I Love You” sung (or played) to Thelma Todd by each brother in their own style.  The movie spends a good portion of its time taking swipes at the pomposity frequently found in higher education as Professor Wagstaff, a man who fought, finagled or possibly cheated his way into his title becomes the head of a college to the chagrin of the bearded and robed professors at his installation ceremony.  He then decides to focus his attention on helping the college win the football championship by taking his son’s advice (and smothering his ethics) and hiring professional players that he finds at a speak-easy.  His teaching style left much to be desired too.

Curiously, there are no Chico/piano, Harpo/harp performances in “Duck Soup” but the film does boast two fantastic musical numbers.  The popularity of “Duck Soup” re-emerged dramatically in the early 70s as those opposing the Vietnam War honed in on the film’s tight political satire on the absurdity of war.  The film was released several years before Germany invaded Poland (and we all know what that led to) but it seems to have been more inspired by the imperial weirdness that led to World War I.  The end number, “The Country’s Going to War” illustrates the crazed jingoism that shuts out reason and often leads to unwise police actions or straight out war.

It also precedes a brilliant scene where President Firefly takes part in the war started by his own over-sensitivity and stubbornness, which he has no idea how to fight or finish.  Previous Marx Brothers movies may have toyed with messages of class vs. class, but this was a full out message movie.
So as glad as I am that Thalberg was able to help the group with revitalizing its career, and as much as I love the first two movies they ever made, in my opinion, the last three movies they made for Paramount showcased their talents the best and were the finest of a very fine career.