Friday, October 31, 2014

Halloween at The Jade Sphinx


Look … before your correspondent is branded as the Ebenezer Scrooge of the Halloween set, let me say that I really like Halloween.  Readers of this blog know my high respect for the tradition of Gothic literature, my taste for Gothic films, and my sometimes recherché taste in the arts.  So, I like Halloween quite a bit.

But, something has gone seriously off-kilter.  When I was a boy, my brothers and I went out trick-or-treating for several hours in home-made costumes (or some pretty spiffy store-bought ones made by Ben Cooper), went home and ate candy and then looked at whatever spooky movie the local television channels played until bedtime.  And, let me tell you, this was a great night.

Now, children are kept off the streets (have you seen an unattended child anywhere lately?) and adults get into sometimes quite gruesome or lewd costumes and party with abandon. 

Think I’m kidding?  According to the NRF’s Halloween Consumer Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, more costumes than ever will be bought in 2014.  Add to that, more than two-thirds (67.4%) of celebrants will buy Halloween costumes for the holiday, the most in the survey’s 11 year history.  And the price tag?  Wait for it …. Americans will spend $7.4 billion on Halloween this year.

I will not say that this money would be better spent on books (though it would), or clothing, or on-line courses or simple, edible food.  But, I have to say that this is madness.  We have taken a simple, fun holiday away from children and tarted it up for adult consumption.  Do we really need to see Halloween zombie masks complete with rotting jaw bone sliding from the skull?  Or adult women in bunny suits or corseted as seductive vamps?  And does Halloween have to mean a complete abandon of the governors of decent behavior and a celebration of the untrammeled ID? 

Again – I get it.  I like Halloween fine.  We are hosting a Halloween party ourselves, this year.  But somehow the more innocent pleasures of Halloween have given way to Mardi Gras excess.  Can't we find a way to integrate children into this holiday once again?  Because no matter how much I like Halloween now, I sure liked it more when I was 12.

And now, onto Thanksgiving….


Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Iliad of Homer, Translated by Robert Fagles

Robert Fagles

Few literary terrains are more treacherous than translation.  Add to that translating an ancient text into a modern idiom (much like translating Martian into contemporary English), and you get an idea of the challenges involved.

Two of the cornerstone texts of the Western tradition are both the Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer.  Both were epic poems meant for recitation – in the largely oral tradition of the Greeks, bards and poets would recite this remarkable narrative from memory, milking the dramatic moments for all their worth.  (Well … parts of it from memory, as it would take some eight hours to read aloud.)  The Iliad deals with the Achaean attack upon the city Troy over the abduction of the beautiful Helen.  Troy is defended by the king, Priam, and his sons, Hector and Paris (who romanced Helen away from her home). 

However, the overarching narrative of war is secondary to the story of Achilles, the greatest of Achaean warriors.  He stays at the shore for most of the action, nursing an ego bruised by his Achaean comrades.  He refuses to intercede in the fighting, though his near-superhuman abilities would easily turn the tide.  The great mystery of Achilles is that he is a superman in all things but emotional stability, having all the sensitivity of a six year old girl. 

Also involved are the gods and goddesses, particularly Zeus and Hera, who play with the warring factions much like heartless children pulling the wings from flies.

The epic is written on a very high note – every book within it needs not only a stirring inner-voice, but an inner soundtrack of every Wagnerian finale.  With the Iliad, too much could never be enough.

Some 20 years ago, both The Iliad and Odyssey were translated anew by scholar and poet Robert Fagles (1933-2008) to great critical acclaim.  A professor at Princeton University, Fagles understood the necessity for narrative drive and rhythm, and he had a deep and profound understanding of the differences between the ancient world and today.

As one who grew up on the Alexander Pope translation of the Iliad (and the T.E. Lawrence version of The Odyssey), I had thought another translation superfluous.  It was only when a copy of the Fagles Iliad fell across my desk weeks ago that I realized how much I had missed.  Here is how Fagles opens the epic:

Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Fagles takes a (literally) heroic epic and makes it full-blooded once again.  Perhaps too full-blooded, as Fagles seems to relish the copious amounts of gore and grue to be found in Homer.  Here’s a good example:

Lycon, flailing,
chopped the horn of Peneleos' horsehair-crested helmet
but round the socket the sword-blade smashed to bits --
just as Peneleos hacked his neck below the ear
and the blade sank clean through, nothing held
but a flap of skin, the head swung loose to the side
as Lycon slumped down to the ground...

Or this:

Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth,
the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,
up under the brain to split his glistening skull --
teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids
with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,
mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood
and death's dark clouds closed down around his corpse.

Horrible stuff – but much more effective when read aloud.  And while rereading Fagles’ Iliad, I read much of it aloud, finding the rhythm to the words and a better understanding the bardic tradition.  As Fagles said in an interview for the Paris ReviewAs I read Homer, he’s a remarkable combination of the timeless, immortal phrase, and of the timely, too, and he’s meant to be heard, not read. “Homer makes us Hearers”—in Pope’s fine formulation—“and Virgil leaves us Readers.” The Iliad is more than half dialogue, direct discourse; the Odyssey more than two-thirds. Both are very dramatic poems, in other words, filled with many voices. It’s as if Homer were a ventriloquist, projecting his voice into the voices of dozens of people living within his poems. That’s one of the most important things to capture—if you can—the dramatic sense that he conveys. Whole books (Books Nine and Twenty-four of the Iliad, Nineteen and Twenty-three of the Odyssey, the reunion of the king and queen) could be lifted out of the text and placed directly on a stage. They’re plays waiting to be performed.

And yet … and yet --- I found something profoundly disturbing during the 10 days or so I immersed myself in Homer’s world.  The heroic walked hand-in-hand with the merely brutal; the sublime often culminated in the petty and parochial; and, worse still, the universe seemed indifferent in equal measure to human achievement and suffering, with nothing at the end but the black void of death. 

We like to think that, in the thousands of years since the creation of this poem that mankind has made tremendous strides, and indeed, we have in science, technology and our understanding of the world.  However, the inherent cruelty of the human heart remains a mystery as deep today as it was to Homer.  Why do we crave and recoil from war in equal measure?  Why do we pray to a god (or gods) who make sport of us?  And, in the end, what does all the toil, the pain, and, also, the triumph mean?  In answering such questions, we are no further along than Homer.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack, by William Joyce


Proving that once again the ridiculous is often sublime, author-illustrator-film-maker William Joyce returns with a new book for young readers, A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack.  This is Joyce’s amusing and endearing take on the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale … and perhaps another story or two, thrown in.

Joyce provides the narrative this time, allowing newcomer Kenny Callicutt to provide the illustrations.  The text is Joyce as his breezy, irreverent best.  There’s a drought in the kingdom where small boy Jack lives, resulting in a severe problem: the monarch’s pinky is now stinky.  It’s up to a small boy, an even smaller bean, and a very large stalk to travel upwards to a land of giants (including a rather endearing young giant in his bath), and make the world right once more.  Delivered in a sort of staccato, wise-guy meter, A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack is tons of fun for the younger children of all ages.

A special word here about illustrator Callicutt: though his style is similar to Joyce, it is completely his own.  The figures have a wonderful, toy-like quality (as if Mother Goose created a line of Lego toys), and are drawn with a pastel-toned minimalism.  Callicutt first came to Moonbot, Joyce’s company, as an apprentice, and this is his first picture book.  We hope it’s the first of many.

Moonbot, of course, is Joyce’s imaginarium located in Shreveport, Louisiana.  After years as the most creative and light-hearted children’s’ book double-threat in the industry, Joyce created Moonbot Studios to nurture new talents and create extraordinary entertainment for an array of media platforms. Moonbot makes not only books, but apps, games and anything else that is a medium to carry narrative.  If you think that Joyce has created a small-scale Disney down-south, you would be right – but one more nimble, daring, irreverent and, most of all, directly connected to its legion of fans.  Expect great things from Moonbot in the years to come.

Like much of the Joycean oeuvre, it would seem that A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack is tied into a larger, mythic universe.  Jack holds a staff much like Jack Frost from Joyce’s Guardians of Childhood series – are they the same person?  The Princess (and we must always have a Princess) is named Jill … are there possibilities there?  And will this book open up an entire series of Joyce’s fractured fairly tales?  We can only wait and see.

On top of the language-play and delightful visuals, it is always a pleasure for your correspondent to welcome the annual offering from William Joyce.  It is an indication that the holiday season is upon us, and that things will always turn out right in the end.

Even if your pinky is stinky.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, by Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron


Jade Sphinx readers receiving the latest dispatches from the Culture Wars are well-aware of the current controversial season at the New York Metropolitan Opera.  However, it seems that the Met is no stranger to controversy, as I learned from Grand Opera: The Story of the Met, the first new history of the organization in 30 years.  In Grand Opera, authors Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron trace the story of the Met through its opening night of Faust to the recent controversial production of Wagner’s Ring, illustrating their story with previously unpublished anecdotes about the temperamental divas, driven directors, chorus members, and sometimes-striking orchestras that made it a world-class institution. 

When tackling a subject as immense as the history of a cultural institution that has loomed large on the American intellectual and aesthetic landscape for more than 100 years, the question should be – how to proceed?  Would such a study focus on the administration of various General Managers?  On performances, particularly of operatic stars here in the US and abroad?  Touch upon the influence of wealthy patrons and the role of elite society on the institution?  Or, is it really a question of how world affairs impacted so cosmopolitan an organization?

Surprisingly, the Affrons manage to tackle all of these questions and more in Grand Opera.  As such, Grand Opera is not only the story of the Met, but a de facto history of US aesthetic and cultural aspirations as the nation became a major global voice within the fine arts.  Reading through the book we see an emergent superpower finding its way in a traditionally European milieu, and through it, addressing particularly American concerns. 

For instance, the Affrons shine in a lucid and eloquent passage on the Met and its integration of African-Americans into the Metropolitan family.  That such machinations on behalf of General Manager Rudolf Bing were necessary only some 50 years ago is sobering.  As the Affrons remind us:

In the southern cities of its 1961 spring tour, the Met was caught up in the fight for civil rights that defined the decade. During the Atlanta run, two African-American holders of orchestra tickets were asked to sit elsewhere. They refused. Protests ensued. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined in a telegram to Bing denouncing the company’s acceptance of a discriminatory policy: “The SCLC regrets sincerely that the famed Metropolitan Opera Company has allowed itself to be dictated to by the whim and caprice of so-called ‘southern custom,’ at such a critical moment in history, particularly this community.” The text was cosigned by Martin Luther King Jr. Bing’s reply was published in the Times the next day. The Met, he wrote defensively, “does not allow itself to be dictated to by anyone. . . . We have nothing whatsoever to do with the local arrangements.” But the following year, officially at least, the Atlanta audience was integrated. Atlanta was again a thorn in Bing’s side in 1964. The organizers had balked at the prospect of Leontyne Price in Don Giovanni. Bing dashed off this memorandum to Anthony Bliss, president of the Metropolitan Opera Association: “Leontyne Price at the present time is one of the most valuable properties [an unfortunate choice of words] of the Metropolitan Opera and there is no doubt that taking her on tour next season, but skipping the whole Atlanta week would terribly upset her, would without question make her refuse the whole tour and might, indeed, jeopardize her whole relationship with the Metropolitan.” Price sang Donna Anna in Atlanta that spring.

It would seem that navigating shifting political currents is a necessary skill for any General Manager of the Met; the chapters devoted to the Met during World War II, for example, are a masterful summary of stewardship during a global conflict impacting on artists, composers, musicians, donors and patrons. 

And here, really, is the nubbin of the book:  the Metropolitan Opera is not simply, and reductively, an organization that puts on musical shows.  Rather, it is a collective of world-class artists – singers, dancers, composers, musicians and designers – working with a far-reaching administrative wing navigating global events, New York society and a querulous donor base.  Grand Opera provides a splendid illustration of the massive, complex and multiform undertaking that is the New York Metropolitan Opera that can be read with satisfaction by opera fans, cultural historians and New York history buffs.  It is highly recommended and available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookseller.

For readers who cannot get enough opera, Charles Affron also blogs about the Met at OperaPost, which you can visit here:  http://operapost.blogspot.com/.  It is a site both informative and entertaining.



Friday, October 24, 2014

The Homesman, By Glendon Swarthout




One of the most successful western novels of the latter part of the last century was The Shootist (1975), by Glendon Swarthout (1918-1992).  This fine novel was later made into an even better John Wayne film of the same name in 1976, which would prove to be not only Wayne’s last western, but his last film, as well.  It was a fitting coda to a career in the saddle.

Needless to say, it was with some excitement that I found his book The Homesman (1988) at my local bookshop.  It was, however, a significant disappointment.

The setup is wonderful:  during a crippling winter, three women living hardscrabble pioneer lives go insane.  The opening chapter includes a graphic moment when one of these unfortunates murders her new-born baby by dropping it into the outhouse pit.  The book struggles to recover its grounding after this brutal opening.

It is decided that the three women need to be taken back east to a religious institution that deals with unbalanced women.  Their husbands – a fairly brutish lot – abrogate their responsibilities, so someone else must escort these women through dangerous Indian country.  But who?

Enter Mary Bee Cuddy, an ex-teacher, spinster and independent woman.  She volunteers for this perilous mission, but realizes that she cannot do it alone.  Fortunately, she saves from lynching George Briggs, a sidewinder and general hard-case who is getting his neck stretched for claim jumping.  Saving his life, she makes a bargain with him to take the deranged women back east.

Of course, they meet every expected plot complication: storms, Indians, rampaging cattlemen and dwindling supplies.

The Homesman won both the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award and the Western Heritage Wrangler Award, and I sure had high hopes.  However, The Homesman is a failure in almost every regard.  Though it may sound as high-concept as Little House on the Prairie Goes to Hell, it’s never quite that good.

First, Mary Bee Cuddy never really comes alive – she is simply a walking cliché.  Imagine the wonderful Marjorie Main (1890-1975) in buckskin, and all the character development you need is already in your head.  It is almost as if Swarthout was merely notching things on the standard checklist for salty western women: homely?  Check.  Brassy and tough?  Check.  Spinster and ex-teacher?  Check and check.  Worse yet, and I will spoil this for you to save reading the book, Cuddy hangs herself midway through the novel after Briggs rejects her attempts to seduce him.  This is a plot point that comes completely from left field, and once Swarthout kills his point-of-view character, what little there was to savor is gone. 

Briggs, of course, is a western lowlife according to the standard template: bad man with inherent decency.  He is never believable for an instant. 

Swarthout commits his greatest sin by leaving the three, poor madwomen nothing more than ciphers.  Here is an opportunity for any novelist to really shine … but aside from glazed stares and greatly internalized suffering, there is nothing there.  
Perhaps your correspondent is sadly warped, but slogging through this turgid potboiler, I could not help but wait for the funny part.  It never came.

And then – it dawned on me.  In other hands, what a delicious comedy this would be!  Keep almost the same set up, but think Bob Hope as Briggs, and someone like Ethel Merman as Mary Bee Cuddy.  Throw in Phyllis Diller, Martha Raye and Zasu Pitts as the madwomen, and you have something.  At least it would be more interesting (if certainly not more enjoyable) than The Homesman.

My paperback copy says that this is Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture With Tommy Lee Jones.  It would seem that the story of my life is that I’m waiting for Bob Hope and instead I get Tommy Lee Jones.  I hope that he may be able to raise a few laughs, but we are not optimistic….

Thursday, October 23, 2014

People’s Symphony Concerts Return!


If New York is the classical music capital of the world, then perhaps the best bargain in the world for music lovers is the series of concerts presented by People’s Symphony.

The Peoples’ Symphony Concerts series was founded in 1900 by the conductor Franz Arens to bring the world’s finest music to students and workers for minimum prices.  That winter, more than 7,000 people jammed into the old hall at Cooper Union to hear Arens, the son of an immigrant farmer, conduct his series of five Peoples' Symphony Concerts.  Subscriptions for the five concerts ranged from $.25 to $1.25 and single tickets went for as little as $0.10 each. 

Arens himself started out a poor student in Europe who had been too broke to attend many concerts.  When Arens returned to New York, he was determined to find a way to bring music to students, teachers, workers, and others unable to pay normal ticket prices.  Since those early years, hundreds of thousands of Peoples' Symphony Concerts audience members have heard the world's foremost concert artists and ensembles at the lowest admission prices of any major series in the country.

Your correspondent has been going for nearly 25 years, and has heard such world class masters as Richard Goode, Garrick Ohlsson, and Marc-Andre Hamelin.  There are three concert series, two taking place on Saturday evenings at the spacious (and newly-renovated) theater at Washington Irving High School in Gramercy Park, and one on Sunday afternoons at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan.

The season opened last week with a magnificent performance by the Musicians From Marlboro, the touring extension of the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.  This group is comprised of exceptional young professional musicians together with seasoned artists in varied chamber music programs. Each program is built around a work performed in a previous summer that Artistic Directors Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida and their colleagues felt was exceptional and should be shared with a wider audience. The resulting ensembles offer audiences the chance to both discover seldom-heard masterworks and enjoy fresh interpretations of chamber music favorites.

The concert opened with a relatively new work by Svervánszky, the Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola.  This piece was filled with a rich, folkloric, Middle European flavor, and was played with great brio by the troup.

The was followed by the Sonata for flute, viola and harp, L. 137 by Debussy.  This was, perhaps, my favorite piece of the evening – offering a lush, yet limpid, interval of pure aural pleasure.

The evening progressed with Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky, Op. 28 by Kurtág which, frankly, went in one ear and out the other.  However, as with most contemporary pieces, mileage varies depending on user.

The concert ended with a gripping rendition of Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, which was greeted by the crowd with long, loud and lusty applause.

Artists for the evening included David McCarroll, violin; Nikki Chooi, violin; Kim Kashkashian, viola; Wenting Kang, viola; Karen Ouzounian, cello; Marina Piccinini, flute; and, Sivan Magen, harp.  These are exceptionally talented young people.

Many of my readers support the New York Metropolitan Opera, WQXR and/or Tanglewood, but few seem to know this wonderful reasoure for people who are serious about music. 

There are still tickets available for this season; visit http://pscny.org  or call (212) 586-4680 for more information.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

Every now and then, successful films make the novels upon which they were based superfluous.  Most everyone has seen some version or another of such classic novels as Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield, but very few crack the original texts. 

When Walt Disney released Bambi in 1942, it seemed to erase all memory of its wonderful source-material, the novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods, written by Felix Salten (1869-1945) in 1923.  This is a great shame because in nearly every way imaginable, the novel is infinitely superior to the admittedly classic film.

The Disney film greatly softens the material, providing Bambi with amusing sidekicks and expanding the action with comic set-pieces.  Though there is an emotionally wrenching scene where Bambi’s mother is shot by hunters, it is not overall a somber or lachrymose film.  Indeed, it is one of the most limpid and lovely Disney films of the era.

This is very different from Salten’s novel (originally translated into English by Whittaker Chambers).  There, Bambi is born into a world of largely absent fathers, continual threat from hunters, fierce competition for food and resources, and the bitter reality of death. 

The lessons of Bambi are that life is often hard, and frequently entire populations become the sport of the casually cruel and powerful.  (As Salten himself would learn under the Nazis.)  Bambi particularly in his romantic maturation, often behaves badly himself, as if Salten is saying that we are born into a world where we are hardwired to be selfish and destructive.

While reading classic children’s novels, it is easy to think of their adult counterparts.  (For example, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is the Jane Austin novel of the field).  The prose of Bambi, with all its simple, declarative force and echoes of an incantation, made me feel as if I were reading an anthropomorphic book of the Old Testament

It is also a remarkable meditation on mortality and loss.  While the film focuses on the death of Bambi’s mother, the novel’s most eloquent rumination on death comes between two leaves, anxiously discussing their upcoming fall.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”

“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t’ even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”

“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.

They were silent a while.  Then the first leaf said quietly to herself.  “Why must we fall?”

The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

“We sink down…”

“What is under us?”

The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”

The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”

The first leaf answered, “Who knows?  Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”

Salten was a very prolific author, publishing about one book a year on average.  He is believed to be the anonymous author of the erotic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher (1906), which is about a Viennese prostitute.  Clearly a man of versatile literary achievements.

Like many Jewish artists, he fell into Hitler’s crosshairs; Der Fuhrer banned Salten’s books in 1936, and the author fled to Switzerland two years later.  He would die there.

Salter sold the film rights to Bambi to director Sidney Franklin for a mere $1,000; Franklin then sold the rights to Disney.  As is often the case with Disney and copyright, they would argue in the 1950s that the book was in the public domain and attempt to retain greater profits.  (Disney evocation of copyright always struck your correspondent as risible, considering they have made millions of dollars adapting public domain fairy tales.  Perhaps the scariest sequence of any Disney film happens in business meetings away from the camera.)

Adults who consider a “children’s novel” with trepidation should have no fear.  No less than John Galsworthy wrote that: Bambi is a delicious book.  Delicious not only for children but for those who are no longer so fortunate.  For delicacy of perception and essential truth I hardly know any story of animals that can stand beside this life study of a forest deer. 

We cannot argue.

Tomorrow -- the return of People’s Symphony Concerts!




Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Books of Wonder Hosts William Joyce



Bill Joyce in the Books of Wonder Gallery (and an N.C. Wyeth Behind Him)

During our recent (too long) hiatus, readers have asked where we have been keeping ourselves.

One of the many answers is Books of Wonder, an oasis for bibliophiles, art collectors, and people – both young and old – interested in children’s literature.  For your correspondent, who has been dutifully tracing the history of children’s literature from its Victorian Golden Age to its kaleidoscopic present, it is paradise.  For those who love this often neglected realm of literary and artistic endeavor, or who wish to share wondrous creations with the young, there is simply no better place. 

Books of Wonder has been around since 1980 – it’s an independent store owned and operated by Peter Glassman, who has managed to create a space with something for everybody.

Our recent trips have left us marveling at original illustrations by N. C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Wizard of Oz illustrators John R. Neill (1877-1943) and W.W. Denslow (1856-1915), as well as original Disney animation cells, in the back gallery.  Also there are glorious first editions of the Oz books, along with facsimile reproductions of Andrew Lang’s (1844-1912) fairy books, as well as brand new books by today’s leading lights in the field.

The staff is always friendly and extremely knowledgeable; there is rarely a Christmas shopping trip when I do not come home laden with treasures, many often for myself.  With the holidays approaching, you cannot have a better resource.

Another great plus for the shop is the frequent appearance of the world’s finest illustrators and writers of today’s children’s books.  Recent guests have included such luminaries as Oliver Jeffers and Garth Nix.  This past weekend, Books of Wonder played host to the doyen of the field, William Joyce.

It is a tribute to his considerable artistry that an equal number of adults attend his public appearances as do children, and his recent appearance was no exception.  He spoke to a capacity crowd, regaling them with stories of his adventures at the Academy Awards (where he won an Oscar, along with Brandon Oldenburg, for his short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore); his adventures in school; the creation of his company, Moonbot; his efforts to launch young artists and animators into the field; and, his love of story-telling and images.

Joyce had the crowd gather closer as he showed his recent animated short, the Numberlys, chatted with aspiring artists and writers, and even provided a sneak-preview of his next animated short, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.  This was a stunning piece of work – daringly conceived in its overall design and dramatically streamlined to deliver maximum impact.  Be on the lookout for this, as it will rank as the finest animated adaptation of Poe, ever.

Joyce was also in town for a screening of The Numberlys at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, where it was included as part of its permanent collection, and to talk about his new book, A Bean, A Stalk and a Boy Named Jack, which he created with Kenny Callicutt.  (Watch these pages for a review next week.)  And next year, the 2015 holiday season will also see the new installments in his Guardians of Childhood series.  It would seem as if this protean talent is entering a new era of growth and creativity.

William Joyce has been a consistently energetic and enjoyable artist since his debut on the scene more than 20 years ago.  His love of fun and dedication to his craft has provided a much-needed joyous note in these days of “dark and gritty.”  The world of William Joyce is one where everyone is happy, and is a tonic (if not a benediction) young and old alike.  He is, as an artist and a man, someone who matters.





Tomorrow – Bambi. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Repulsive Ads and Ridiculous Covers


We here at The Jade Sphinx are often … well …, shocked by what we see plastered on bus and train walls, and in our bookstalls.  Movie and television show ads are often much too grotesque to actually see the light of day, and I am unsure why we as a people need to be bombarded by ugliness.

Mind, this is not Mrs. Grundy speaking.  My objections are not moral; morals are out of the scope of our ongoing discussion.  We deal in aesthetics, and as aesthetes we must rebel against revolting images.

Take the ad above, which I photographed on the side of a bus traveling across Central Park South.  It is for a film or television show called The Strain – but the strain is entirely on any innocent confronted with this repellent and gruesome image.  I ask with candor – are the people responsible for this ad criminally insane?  Reprehensively irresponsible?  Morally bankrupt?  Knaves and fools?

Then, upon closer examination, we see that the ‘brains’ behind The Strain is “auteur” Guillermo Del Toro, who has made an entire career of ugly and unsettling images.  At least he has the charm of consistency.

Then, we are greeted by the new cover for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Isn’t this something you want to buy for your child?


The cover has already created something of a furor, with many customers (and potential customers) wondering why a great children’s classic has been tarted up as a cheap publicity stunt.  Penguin has already been doing damage control, pointing out that this is the "adult" edition, and have released a statement on their blog:  the Modern Classics cover looks at the children at the centre of the story, and highlights the way Roald Dahl's writing manages to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of life.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have been in public relations long enough to detect the heady, sweet odor of bullshit when we smell it.  I’ve read Charlie both as a child and an adult, and I’m not sure that “dark” is the adjective I would use.  But “dark” has become a marketing buzzword, bandied about usually when marketers want adults to buy children’s material without feeling any guilt.  It is this ridiculous argument that has resulted in various frauds, illiterates and numbskulls wanting to call everything from The Wizard of Oz to Superman “dark.”  I am waiting for the “dark” version of Beatle Baily….

Do we really need to see these things?  To marketers really have to pander to our basest selves?  And isn’t it time that we ask, don’t we deserve better?



Thursday, August 7, 2014

Alarms and Discursions, by G. K. Chesterton (1910)




Over the past many months we have been reading quite a bit of that brilliant author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (1874 – 1936), creator of the delightful Father Brown detective stories.  Though little-remembered today, Chesterton was one of the outstanding critics and thinkers of his age.  There are many reasons to admire GKC, but perhaps the most sensible is that he had never lost his childlike sense of wonder.  It was his innocence and clarity, mixed with a prodigious erudition, that resulted in his gargantuan influence as a writer and thinker.  He is simply the finest critic of Dickens and Stevenson I have ever read, and his take on Shakespeare is enthralling.  To read Chesterton is to see these writers anew, as if some profound truth were staring us in the face and it took a little boy to point it out.

The Falstaffian figure of GKC was familiar to all literate people in the US and UK for decades.  Tall and fat, he wore a broad-brimmed slouch hat and cape, and often carried a sword cane.  Of such figures legends are made, and Chesterton, the man himself, influenced writers who converted the easily recognizable figure into a string of fictional characters.  (His influence on detective fiction is vast – and the man himself served as the model for the fictional Dr. Gideon Fell, who appeared in mysteries by John Dickson Carr.)  The most contemporary figure similar to GKC would be Orson Welles; but though brilliant, Welles did not have his deep and profound depth of learning, his purity of soul, nor his sense of fun.  Welles was old before his time; GKC was forever young.

Chesterton earned his bread and cheese as a journalist, writing for the London Daily News.  His 1910 book Alarms and Discursions features dozens of columns on a variety of different subjects.  Paging through this book, the reader would learn his thoughts on everything from democracy, to cheese to the failure of the English upper classes.   Anyone interested in learning more about this fascinating man should look at his newspaper columns while also reading his many novels and books of sustained criticism.

Here are some quotes:  When a man says that democracy is false because most people are stupid, there are several courses which the philosopher may pursue. The most obvious is to hit him smartly and with precision on the exact tip of the nose. But if you have scruples (moral or physical) about this course, you may proceed to employ Reason, which in this case has all the savage solidity of a blow with the fist. It is stupid to say that "most people" are stupid. It is like saying "most people are tall," when it is obvious that "tall" can only mean taller than most people. It is absurd to denounce the majority of mankind as below the average of mankind.

Isn’t that grand?  And here is GKC writing in 1910 something that is even more pertinent to 2014:  In a popular magazine there is one of the usual articles about criminology; about whether wicked men could be made good if their heads were taken to pieces. As by far the wickedest men I know of are much too rich and powerful ever to submit to the process, the speculation leaves me cold. I always notice with pain, however, a curious absence of the portraits of living millionaires from such galleries of awful examples; most of the portraits in which we are called upon to remark the line of the nose or the curve of the forehead appear to be the portraits of ordinary sad men, who stole because they were hungry or killed because they were in a rage. The physical peculiarity seems to vary infinitely; sometimes it is the remarkable square head, sometimes it is the unmistakable round head; sometimes the learned draw attention to the abnormal development, sometimes to the striking deficiency of the back of the head. I have tried to discover what is the invariable factor, the one permanent mark of the scientific criminal type; after exhaustive classification I have to come to the conclusion that it consists in being poor.

GKC had a remarkably Christian point of view – and by that, I don’t necessarily mean he wore his Catholicism on his sleeve.  He was a Christian humanist – someone who, seemingly against all odds, genuinely loved people.  This is a rare quality among those who live in the mind, but GKC was a rare man. 

The charm of a book like Alarms and Discursions is that it can be read through in one sitting, or can be dipped into almost indiscriminately.  There is not a page without gold of some kind, and, in addition, even his most interesting observations are presented with a puckish insouciance.  Read this, and savor, especially, the last line:  Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of people in this world. The first kind of people are People; they are the largest and probably the most valuable class. We owe to this class the chairs we sit down on, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in; and, indeed (when we come to think of it), we probably belong to this class ourselves. The second class may be called for convenience the Poets; they are often a nuisance to their families, but, generally speaking, a blessing to mankind. The third class is that of the Professors or Intellectuals; sometimes described as the thoughtful people; and these are a blight and a desolation both to their families and also to mankind. Of course, the classification sometimes overlaps, like all classification. Some good people are almost poets and some bad poets are almost professors. But the division follows lines of real psychological cleavage. I do not offer it lightly. It has been the fruit of more than eighteen minutes of earnest reflection and research.

Alarms and Discursions is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable www.manybooks.net.  It makes for wonderful reading.