Friday, July 31, 2015

Childish Loves, by Benjamin Markovits

Childish Loves is the third book concerning George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) by Benjamin Markovits.  The first two books – Imposture (2007) and A Quiet Adjustment (2008) – are fairly straightforward historical novels.  The first in the series focuses on Byron and his relationship with John Polidori (author of the one of the first vampire stories in the English language), while the features Annabella Milbanke, who later became Lady Byron.

But Childish Loves tries for something different.  In this novel, Markovits recounts how the previous two volumes are really the work of the late Peter Pattieson (born Peter Sullivan), a teacher at a New York private school.  In the prologue to Imposture, Pattieson/Sullivan was the supposed owner of the Polidori manuscript we subsequently read.  In Childish Loves, its revealed that Pattieson/Sullivan died following a scandal involving one of his students, leaving author Markovits three manuscripts: the novels Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment and three components that make up this book.  It is the conceit of this final novel that Markovits has been merely the editor and literary midwife of these Byronic fictions.

Markovits likes to play the contemporary game of metafiction to a fault.  He narrates this novel in his own voice, including details on possible marital trouble with wife “Caroline” (the book is dedicated to Caroline, and a quick Internet check confirms that this is his wife), while also complaining of mid-career malaise.  He also includes huge swaths to seemingly true autobiography (his past as a basketball player, for example, as well as time spent both in Texas and abroad).  However, it would seem that Pattieson/Sullivan are made up of whole cloth, invented just as much as the passages “by” Lord Byron.

All of this, of course, is the game Markovits is playing.  In this novel, “Markovits” (whether the “real” or “fictional” one) complains at length that the only thing readers wanted to know about his earlier Byron novels were what parts were “true.”  This dual game Childish Loves allows Markovits to explain where his historical fiction departed from fact, while teasing the reader with doubts about the “real” Markovits. 

If all of this sounds beguiling or intriguing, it is … to a degree.  Markovits errs in thinking that people really care to any extent on the historicity of historical fiction – they don’t.  People want a good story, and if the prose is beautiful or evocative as well, all the better.  Everyone expects romanticism in historical fiction, just they expect hyperbole and exaggeration in autobiography, or a closely-structured argument to drive straight history.  Anything written without a particular point of view rapidly becomes unreadable.

Sadly, the Byron of Markovits’ imagination (or that of Pattieson/Sullivan, if you wish to play that particular game) is never compelling or beguiling.  Byron was a man of extreme intelligence, remarkable charisma, great poetic ability and violent passions.  The Byron in these imagined passages is merely an empty-headed spoiled rich kid with murky political ideals – a Brat Packer trying to raise an army.  As such, he never comes to life nor convinces.

Fortunately, Markovits equips his novel with a strong narrative hook: Markovits travels across the country meeting various friends and relatives of the late Pattieson/Sullivan, trying to learn how much of the writer’s personal life bled into his Byronic fictions.  It is much like The Aspern Papers heavily diluted with contemporary angst. 

One plows through Childish Loves waiting for the moment when the novel works better and lives up to it abundant potential, but that moment never seems to come.  There are moments and premises here that seem ripe for more satisfying exploration, but the final taste is one of disappointment.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain (Revised 2nd Edition), by Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks

Some months ago, we had so much fun reading Frank Dello Stritto’s masterful I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It, his memoir of growing up during the Golden Age of Television, that we decided to dip further into his corpus.  My interest happily coincided with the new, revised 2nd edition of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain.  For those who love Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) or Dracula, and you know who you are, this book is essential.

It is a strange quirk of history and cinematic fanaticism that the great figures of the age often sink into obscurity and people less respected in their own time find greater posthumous importance.  Such is certainly the case with Bela Lugosi; more books have been written about Lugosi than Clark Gable (1901-1960) or Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) or Gary Cooper (1901-1961) or Bing Crosby (1903-1977) combined, though those luminaries worked in the upper echelons of the movie industry while Lugosi toiled on Poverty Row.

What is it about Lugosi that makes him so potent a figure nearly 60 after his death, while greater stars (and much better actors) fade into obscurity?  Perhaps it has something to do with the medium of film itself.  Though the camera moves very close, it loves the large gesture, the show of big personality and individuality.  Smaller, more subtle actors are applauded by the critics, but the movie-goer loves people who take it big.  And few actors took it bigger than Lugosi.

Lugosi’s legacy to motion pictures remain a handful of interesting performances, a generous number of truly bad B films, and a legend that has lost none of its potency.  Lugosi first played Dracula on Broadway.  When Dracula premiered at the Fulton Theater, neither the critics nor the audience realized that they were witnessing the creation of one of modern theater history's great signature roles.  Typecast as Dracula forever after his 1931 film appearance, actor and role merged for eternity when the actor requested that he be buried in his vampire costume.

Like many jobbing actors, Lugosi strove to go where the money was.  He made two trips to Great Britain – the 1930s and 1950s, respectively – and little is known of his activity there.  Legends among Lugosiphiles suggest that his 1950s tours of Dracula throughout the English countryside were a dismal failure.  However, research by Dello Stritto and Brooks suggest that the tour was wildly successful, and that it was the last great triumph of Lugosi’s tumultuous life.

Dello Stritto and Brooks interviewed many of the survivors of tour, and also unearthed a great deal of previously unpublished material to make this a rich history indeed.  But a book full facts could be deathly dull – despite the inherent interest of the topic – if the historian cannot make them come alive.  Dello Stritto and Brooks do not drown in his own research.  They are scintillating raconteurs, and this 300+ page book moves along as breezily as a fascinating dinner conversation.

This is not just a chronicle of a once-respected actor trying to recapture former glories, but a wonderful evocation of English provincial theater in the 1950s.  It reflects a lost world of interest to theater buffs, movie buffs, Dracula and Lugosi mavens, and people drawn to the nascent English film industry.  It is all there, from train travel and one-night stands in the sticks, to alliances and challenges among a small company of players, to hoping to open big in London’s West End.  (Sadly, that was a triumph denied Lugosi and company.)

In addition to a lively and inviting text, Dello Stritto and Brooks have managed to uncover dozens of photos never-seen-in-print.  Your Correspondent has spent decades reading about Bela Lugosi, with little hope of anything new on the horizon.  Vampire Over London is crammed with photos I have never seen, that provide a greater understanding of both Lugosi the theatrical presence and Lugosi the man.  This is a terrific book, not to be missed.

Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain can be ordered directly from Cult Movies Press at:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury

For many years, it was standard practice every summer at the home of Your Correspondent to read Dandelion Wine (1957) by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).  Somehow, we had fallen out of the habit for the last decade or so, and it was with some trepidation that we recently revisited the book.  Will it hold up?

Dandelion Wine is the story of two brothers growing up in Green Town, Illinois.  The older boy, Douglas Spaulding, is 12, his brother Tom, 10.  The year is 1928, and the narrative is not a single story so much as a series of vignettes that illustrate the summer. 

In the course of the book, Doug and Tom solve no crimes, have no adventures, see little action in the traditional sense.  But it is a formative summer, nonetheless.  First, Doug realizes that he’s alive.  This is a stupendous realization, bringing color and a sense of wonder to all things.  But, he also realizes that some day he will die, which lead to revelations of another sort.

The boys also befriend Col. Freeleigh, a near centenarian who remembers the Civil War, Pawnee Bill and the buffalo, and the mysterious death of magician Chung Ling Soo.  (Look it up.)  They meet an old lady who may never have been young, a neighbor who vows to build a “happiness machine,” and Doug’s best friend moves across the country, out of his life forever.  Grandparents die, new tennis shoes are bought, and feuding neighbors resort to mail-order magic to settle differences.

One reads through Dandelion Wine, thinking that none of it flows in any coherent sense, and then, boom, summer is over and we see that the events of the book fit together in a panoramic mosaic.  It is a startling literary achievement.

So, visiting it again after so many years, I have to confess that I come away more impressed by Bradbury’s work than ever before.  This is a beautiful, lyrical novel, and Bradbury may have been the 20th Century’s finest prose poet.  It is a book to be read aloud, each word savored and tasted.

Bradbury, of course, built his reputation on his stories of science fiction and fantasy.  He was already a household name when Dandelion Wine debuted, but it was a radical change for the author in that it is not a work of the fantastic.  There are no spaceships, illustrated men, monsters, dinosaurs, Martians or ghosts in Dandelion Wine.  Despite the lack of such flummery, the book is suffused with magic; parts of it read like an outright incantation, as if every word brings the reader closer to the experience of being young.  If you want to know what Bradbury the man was like, read Dandelion Wine.

The book met with glowing reviews from the mainstream press, but the harshest critics of the tale came from the science fiction community, who perhaps felt that Bradbury, in writing a “straight” novel, was abandoning the genre.  This is ridiculous, of course, as Bradbury only wrote science fiction and fantasy in the broadest sense of the terms.  In reality Bradbury was a magical realist – he sees magic everywhere, and thinks the simply act of living a miraculous thing.  If science fiction and fantasy were the tools to best help him achieve his type of lyric prose poetry, fine, but he never really cared about the general conventions of genre fiction.  (Bradbury also had a profound – and wise – dislike of machines and technology, thinking that human connections and interactions are more important.  This is heresy to the science fiction community.)  It is this genius for being himself that enabled Bradbury to escape the ghetto of genre fiction, and assume the deserved mantle of serious writer.

One more observation.  I remembered a book that was beautiful and touched with sadness.  Now, after rereading it again a decade later, I see a book that is sad and touched with beauty.  It is not the sadness of personal tragedy or the particular hardships in life.  Rather, it is the sadness that only comes with the realization of loss.  The great theme of Dandelion Wine is change: it seems we start out in Arcadia, and every summer, every change of our lives, takes us further away from this golden ideal.  To Bradbury’s mind, it’s all downhill from 12 on, and, who knows, he may be right. 

Below is a brief excerpt from Dandelion Wine, one of my favorite passages.  Here, Doug, Tom and some of the neighborhood kids are corralled by Mr. Tridden, the trolley man, who tells them that the trolley is closing down…

At noon the motorman stopped his car in the middle of the block and leaned out.  “Hey!”

And Douglas and Charlie and Tom and all the boys and girls on the block saw the gray glove waving, and dropped: from trees and left skip ropes in white snakes on lawns, to run and sit in the green plush seats, and there was no charge. Mr. Tridden, the conductor, kept his glove over the mouth of the money box as he moved the trolley on down the shady block, calling.

“Hey!” said Charlie. “Where are we going?”

“Last ride,” said Mr. Tridden, eyes on the high electric wire ahead. “No more trolley.  Bus starts to run tomorrow. Going to retire me with a pension, they are. So-a free ride for everyone! Watch out!”

He ricocheted the brass handle, the trolley groaned and swung round an endless green curve, and all the time in the world held still, as if only the children and Mr. Tridden and his miraculous machine were riding an endless river, away.

“Last day?” asked Douglas, stunned. “They can’t do that! It’s bad enough the Green Machine is gone, locked up in the garage, and no arguments. And bad enough my new tennis shoes are getting old and slowing down! How’ll I get around? But … But They can’t take off the trolley! Why,” said Douglas, “no matter how you look at it, a bus ain’t a trolley. Don’t make the same kind of noise. Don’t have tracks or wires, don’t throw sparks, don’t pour sand on the tracks, don’t have the same colors, don’t have a bell, don’t let down a step like a trolley does!”

“Hey, that’s right,” said Charlie. “I always get a kick watching a trolley let down the step, like an accordion.”

“Sure,” said Douglas.

And then they were at the end of the line, the silver tracks, abandoned for eighteen years, ran on into rolling country. In 1910 people took the trolley out to Chessman’s Park with vast picnic hampers. The track, never ripped up, still lay rusting among the hills.

“Here’s where we turn around,” said Charlie.

“Here’s where you’re wrong!” Mr. Tridden snapped the emergency generator switch.  “Now!”

The trolley, with a bump and a sailing glide, swept past the city limits, turned off the street, and swooped downhill through intervals of odorous sunlight and vast acreages of shadow that smelled of toadstools. Here and there creek waters flushed the tracks and sun filtered through trees like green glass. They slid whispering on meadows washed with wild sunflowers past abandoned way stations empty of all save transfer-punched confetti, to follow a forest stream into a summer country, while Douglas talked.

“Why, just the smell of a trolley, that’s different. I been on Chicago buses; they smell funny.”

“Trolleys are too slow,” said Mr. Tridden. “Going to put busses on. Busses for people and busses for school.”

The trolley whined to a stop. From overhead Mr. Tridden reached down huge picnic hampers. Yelling, the children helped him carry the baskets out by a creek that emptied into a silent lake where an ancient bandstand stood crumbling into termite dust.

They sat eating ham sandwiches and fresh strawberries and waxy oranges and Mr. Tridden told them how it had been twenty years ago, the band playing on that ornate stand at night, the men pumping air into their brass horns, the plump conductor flinging perspiration from his baton, the children and fireflies running in the deep grass, the ladies with long dresses and high pompadours treading the wooden xylophone walks with men in choking collars. There was the walk now, all softened into a fiber mush by the years. The lake was silent and blue and serene, and fish peacefully threaded the bright reeds, and the motorman murmured on and on, and the children felt it was some other year, with Mr. Tridden looking wonderfully young, his eyes lighted like small bulbs, blue and electric. It was a drifting, easy day, nobody rushing and the forest all about, the sun held in one position, as Mr. Tridden’s voice rose and fell, and a darning needle sewed along the air, stitching, restitching designs both golden and invisible. A bee settled into a flower, humming and humming. The trolley stood like an enchanted calliope, simmering where the sun fell on it. The trolley was on their hands, a brass smell, as they ate ripe cherries. The bright odor of the trolley blew from their clothes on the summer wind.

A loon flew over the sky, crying.

Somebody shivered.

Mr. Tridden worked on his gloves. “Well, time to go. Parents’ll think I stole you all for good.”

The trolley was silent and cool dark, like the inside of an ice-cream drugstore. With a soft green rustling of velvet buff, the seats were turned by the quiet children so they sat with their backs to the silent lake, the deserted bandstand and the wooden planks that made a kind of music if you walked down the shore on them into other lands.

Bing! went the soft bell under Mr. Tridden’s foot and they soared back over sun abandoned, withered flower meadows, through woods, toward a town that seemed to crush the sides of the trolley with bricks and asphalt and wood when Mr. Tridden stopped to let the children out in shady streets.

Charlie and Douglas were the last to stand near the opened tongue of the trolley, the folding step, breathing electricity, watching Mr. Tridden’s gloves on the brass controls. 

Douglas ran his fingers on the green creek moss, looked at the silver, the brass, the wine color of the ceiling.

“Well . . . so long again, Mr. Tridden.”

“Good-by, boys.”

“See you around, Mr. Tridden.”

“See you around.”

There was a soft sigh of air; the door collapsed shut, tucking up its corrugated tongue. The trolley sailed slowly down the late afternoon, brighter than the sun, tangerine, all flashing gold and lemon, turned a far corner wheeling, and vanished, gone away. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Words with My Daughter, by Elizabeth B. Joyce and Kayla Allen

We have frequently looked at the work of illustrator/film-maker William Joyce (born 1957) in these pages.  Today we look at Words with My Daughter, an excerpt from an upcoming book by his wife, Elizabeth B. Joyce, written with Kayla Allen.  Words with My Daughter is Joyce’s memoir focusing on the harrowing experience of dealing with a terminally ill daughter.

Mary Katherine Joyce (1991-2010) was diagnosed with a brain tumor while only a teenager.  Young Mary Katherine graduated Magna Cum Laude from Caddo Magnet High School in May 2009, later attending the Sorbonne in Paris.  She would pass away in her 18th year.  In her memoir Elizabeth Joyce writes with candor and heart-breaking clarity on this tragedy as it unfolds, with words that reach directly to the heart.

The excerpt is available in the current issue of the Yale Review and online at and it is free of cost.  It is a reading experience you will never forget.

Words with My Daughter is a very emotional narrative, filled with longing and loss, infused with that special brand of love that only a mother can provide.  Elizabeth Joyce has penned a very human document, and it is one of the most wrenching things I’ve read this year.

The accomplishment is all the more remarkable in light of Joyce’s current health.  She has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.  Now bedridden, Joyce wrote this remarkable memoir with her eyes.  To write such a book while battling ill health is an indication of her remarkable strength of character, and her indomitable resolve.

The complete manuscript of Words with My Daughter has not yet landed with a publisher, but it is only a matter of time before this profound, moving and ultimately life-affirming memoir finds a home.  It is miraculous achievement and a stunning illustration of one mother’s love.  Go to the Yale Review and read it now.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Verdi’s Macbeth at Glimmerglass

Our recent sojourn upstate was punctuated by two very different theatrical experiences – the dramatically reimagined Oklahoma! at Bard SecondStage, and the opening night of Verdi’s masterful Macbeth, at Glimmerglass.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) wrote Macbeth in 1847; it was his initial foray into translating Shakespeare from theatrical stage to operatic stage.  (He would later do the same with Otello and Falstaff).  Verdi collaborated with Italian librettist Francesco Piave (1810-1876), with whom he would also collaborate on Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra.  Most of these operas are perhaps better known than Macbeth, which is something of shame as it is a riveting and compelling piece of work.

When approaching Macbeth the play vs. the opera, it is best to remember that the play belongs to Macbeth, while the opera belongs to Lady Macbeth.  Strong players (or singers) are essential for both, but the male performance must carry the play and the leading lady must carry the opera.  This was thrown into stark relief in the Glimmerglass production, which succeeds largely on the masterful performance of Melody Moore as Lady Macbeth.

Macbeth stars baritone Eric Owens in the title role.  Owens has done wonderful work in the past, but he is primarily a singer, and most directors seem to forget that opera demands acting as well.  Though his voice is powerful, it lacks emotional range, and as an actor Owens is utterly hopeless.  Rotund and bearing a striking resemblance to the late Tor Johnson, Owens seems to have only one facial expression as his stock-in-trade:  uncomfortable surprise.  His Macbeth spends several hours as if he just realized a mouse ran up his trouser leg, and it does his singing and the production no favors. 

Banquo is much better served by Soloman Howard, who brings a sense of gravitas and vulnerability to the role.  His singing, at times, seems less sure than is ideal, but he does manage to hold the stage by the tone of his voice and his considerable stage presence.  Strong, too, was Nathan Milholin in the thankless role of the doctor who observes Lady Macbeth’s mad wanderings.  He served as a valuable stabilizing element to Moore’s stagecraft.

However, the evening certainly belonged to Moore and her magnificent Lady Macbeth.  Her singing was a revelation, and her performance deeply affecting and memorable.  All too often (in Shakespeare or Verdi), we are served a one-note Lady Macbeth, but Moore clearly understood the arc of the character, and the many conflicting emotions that drive her early ambition and her later madness.  On top of that, Moore has a compelling presence, charisma to spare, and a quality of glamor that makes her eminently watchable.  This is a singer who will make a considerable mark.

Joseph Colaneri conducted the score competently, but unevenly.  At times, it seemed as if he did not pay proper attention to the entire orchestra, or integrate the vocals with the music seamlessly.  However, the music itself is so wonderful, stirring and majestic that these problems of technique are forgiven.

Perhaps the major misstep of the evening is the direction by Anne Bogart and choreography by Barney O’Hanlon.  Bogart sets the production in what appears to be the era between World Wars, but, once that conceit is in place, seems to do nothing with it.  It is not a comment on fascism per se, nor on nationalism.  She peppers the stage with effectively lit (by Robert Wierzel) refugees … but where does that fit in with Macbeth?  In addition, the murder of Banquo is committed by thugs in bowler hats and Halloween masks, carrying both rather tony walking sticks along with clubs.  Laurel and Hardy Go to Hell may be an interesting idea, but it does have to tie in with the overall concept to make any sense.

Confusing, too, was Bogart’s concept of the Weird Sisters (or witches).  Normally three in number, Bogart serves us 12, all of whom seem to dress like dowdy spinsters straight from Agatha Christie.  This does seem to diminish their power to frighten and mesmerize, and the multi-national nature and broad age-range of the witches seems to add to the confusion.  (Perhaps they are all part of the Coven Exchange Plan?  Who knows?)  The sisters play other roles, suggesting evil omens throughout Verdi’s operatic cosmos, but we never get a handle on who they are or why they are menacing.

The staging is achieved with a minimal set – a rotating wall denoting swanky interiors, and a dark room painted with enormous roses for the mad scene.  It all works surprisingly well … but it doesn’t always play as theater.  In many senses, this is a superb concert performance of Macbeth rather than an overall successful theatrical experience.  With that caveat in mind, Macbeth makes for an enjoyable evening at the opera and worth a trip to Cooperstown.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Oklahoma! at Bard SummerScape

Most Jade Sphinx readers will have seen the film version of Oklahoma! or, perhaps, a Broadway revival or regional production.  Oklahoma! is not only a classic Broadway musical, it is perhaps the key musical, in that it was the first to incorporate song and dance into the story arc.  Prior to Oklahoma!, the plot of musicals went on hold while songs took center stage; it took the genius of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) to realize that music and dance are also a form of narrative.

So it was with great interest that Your Correspondent saw the new, much-lauded revival at Bard SummerScape, on view till July 19.  Most people remember Oklahoma! as one of the sunniest of musicals, and most people would be in for a surprise with this production which is being touted as gritty and darker.  For Your Correspondent this would normally mean stay away.  But though there is a great deal here to offend purists, it is a worthy and thought-provoking production that is not to be missed.  The change in tone succeeds in making Oklahoma! a more thought-provoking than toe-tapping experience, and patrons leave discussing motivation rather than just humming familiar standards.

Directed by Daniel Fish, Oklahoma! is staged in the round, with the audience seated at long deal tables in a room decorated for the show’s  closing neighborhood social.  (Chili and lemonade are served during intermission!)  The score – usually lush and orchestral – is strategically reduced to a country band to increase regional flavor.  And Curley, played winningly by Damon Daunno, often accompanies himself on guitar to smart effect.  (This also helps the real deficiency in his singing – Daunno has a charming lilt to his voice, but the demands of the show are beyond his talents as a vocalist.)  Daunno is perhaps too insinuating a leading man, with an extremely lanky frame that seems to slid into each scene rather than dominate it.  We expect good things from him in the future, and he is suited to the darker reimagining of the show, but somehow he never completely convinces.

A bigger disappointment is Amber Gray as the heroine, Laurey.  Gray is a spare and astringent presence, and her Laurey strives to be powerful and independent, and comes off merely as strident and sullen.  Gray, fortunately, has an impressive voice and sings her songs effectively.

Several of the performers, however, are everything one could wish for, and more.  Ado Annie – often depicted as a coy vixen – here is reimagined as a backwoods slut by actress Allison Strong.  Her brazen sensuality while singing I Can’t Say No! leaves nothing to the imagination, and she has a wanton heat that adds considerable sizzle to the proceedings.  She is evenly matched by the delightful James Patrick Davis as Will Parker, who makes hay with an exuberant rendition of Kansas City, and plays with energy and panache.  Benj Mirman as peddler Ali Hakim (always our favorite character in the show) is a pleasing presence, with an understated handsomeness that contrasts well with the all-American he-men surrounding him.  And though not a singing role per se, he has a pleasing baritone and an easy stage presence; we would happily see him again.

Other players, such as Mitch Tebo as Andrew Carnes and Mary Testa as an unusually slatternly Aunt Eller, also appoint themselves successfully.

However, the real revelation of the evening is Patrick Vaill as the villain of the piece, Jud Fry.  A brooding, sullen presence filled with quiet menace and a palpable, latent sense of evil, Vaill nearly walks away with the production in a scene played, surprisingly, completely in the dark.  When Curley comes to Jud’s room to learn more about him, director Fish blackens the stage, recording the conversation between the two with an infra-red camera and flashing the results on the wall monitor.  The effect is unsettling, creepy and other-worldly, and with his listless eyes and slack carriage, Vaill is a spectacular boogeyman.  He is an actor who will deliver great things in the future.

However, poor Jud’s death at the end of the play is more execution than self-defense: an out-of-context anti-NRA commercial that completely up-ends the normally happy ending of the show.   In addition to the anti-gun message, we also get a battle of the sexes that may delight even today’s feminists.

These days, when we are given the paradoxical dark and gritty Superman, it is perhaps no wonder that Fish serves a light tuneful show as a more real-life dark vision of rural America.  The singing of the signature tune is oddly … defiant, and many of the choices may leave people with a history of the show scratching their heads in dismay.  But if you are adventurous, and want to see a daring, thoughtful and mostly-successful reimagining of a beloved piece of Americana, then the new Oklahoma! is for you.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Getaway Special, by Jerry Oltion (2001)

One of the many pleasures of summer reading is the serendipitous discovery of new authors.  Since I have raley read much science fiction since my boyhood, I had missed the ascendance of Jerry Oltion (born 1957).  Fortunately, I have just come accross his delightful 2001 novel, The Getaway Special.

Few books would better define summer reading than The Getaway Special, the very theme of which is escape.  It is the story of NASA space shuttle pilot Judy Gallagher and what happens when research scientist Allen Meisner tests his new invention, a hyperdrive that enables spacecraft to travel light-years through space in the blink of an eye.

Meisner is a member of INSANE, the International Network of Scientists Against Nuclear Extermination.  He believes that hyperdrive technology available to the masses will drive humankind’s pioneer spirit, and people will travel through the vastness of space in homemade space craft, populating the universe and ensuring that humanity survives possible nuclear extinction here on earth.  While on the shuttle, and with Gallagher’s help, Meisner broadcasts the secrets of his hyperdrive, which can easily be made with parts at the local Radio Shack.

Instead of being hailed as heroes upon their return, Gallagher and Meisner become fugitives – it seems that the US wants to cover up the whole thing as a hoax and keep the technology for themselves; similarly, governments around the world believe that easy access to off-planet escape technology would greatly reduce the control of people entrapped by their own nations and governments.

Hiding in the American Midwest, the couple are befriended by a redneck cowboy libertarian, his wife, and a friendly Robin Hoodesque bank robber.  With their help -- and with some easily available around the home parts and a well-stocked septic tank (don’t ask) – they leave the earth in search of habitable planets.

In space, further than any human being has ever traveled before, they encounter a race of super-intelligent, space-travelling butterflies, sentient trees that uproot themselves and move around, and … a submarine full of belligerent Frenchmen.

As you can tell from this quick synopsis, The Getaway Special is a lark, designed to amuse and entertain – which is does wonderfully.  It is a very funny book (a rarity in science fiction), and is ultimately extremely humanistic and optimistic (a rarity in contemporary science fiction). 

While reading The Getaway Special, I had the curious feeling of renewing an acquaintance, and then it hit me – in mode of storytelling and imaginative prowess, Oltion was writing a book very much in the vein of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels.  Like the Oz novels, our heroine and her male friend (often inadequate in some way), travel far and meet a serious of outlandish peoples, who eventually help them return home and resolve the problems that sent them on the road to begin with.  In short, Oltion has written an extremely amusing children’s book for adults.

When looking at Edgar Rice Burroughs yesterday, we said that science is really always about the time in which it is written, and not the future.  That is certainly true here – released before September 11th, The Getaway Special is frank and honest about how severe a compromise to American interests would be viewed.  However, Your Correspondent read it with a trace of nostalgia – there was still some semblance of law and checks-and-balances of power at play in the novel, and one imagines that today that our heroes would have been shot out of space while broadcasting the hyperdrive specs.

Also interesting is the politics at play.  Oltion seems to appreciate the often good sense of the Right to perceive real and present threats, while also giving credence to the Left and its belief that the vast majority of human beings want the same things.  (And with a forest of sentient trees, Oltion is literally a tree-hugger.)  And one of the more heroic characters (indeed, the one perhaps most responsible for humanity’s eventual survival … is a beer-guzzling libertarian in a cowboy hat.

Oltion’s work is new to me (though he has been active for some time), and I will happily seek out other books.  I was also amused to learn that there is more than a little Allen Meisner in him.  Oltion is the inventor of the trackball telescope, an equatorial mounting system with an electromechanical star tracking drive.  He has put the patent-able portions of it on his Website, making his invention accessible to other telescope makers.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beyond 30 (AKA The Lost Continent), by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915)

During your correspondent’s misspent youth – back when dinosaurs ruled the earth – he spent most of his summer vacations reading the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950).

Yes … most of you have just lost what little respect for me that you may have had.  However, I believe you judge too harshly.  I say without shame and in complete candor that some of the people I met in my ramblings through ERB’s corpus are among the most important literary friendships that I have made.  Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars and the explorers of the subterranean world of Pellucidar, where intelligent reptiles live at the Earth’s core, are as real to me to this day as many actual human beings that I have met in later life.  And some of them even make better friends.

No one will argue for a moment that ERB is a prose stylist, or that his insight into human nature was a rare and subtle one.  More damming to his literary reputation are his sensibilities and taste for high adventure; most modern novels are simply slices of life that may better labeled why we are miserable now.  ERB has no patience for that type of thinking or that type of narrative.  ERB wrote adventure stories – set in some of the most exotic places on and off of the planet – and they were unabashedly plot-driven.  If you want know the plight of unhappy men in a midlife crisis, or women struggling for identity in a world redefined by feminism, look elsewhere.  Want to learn how a Civil War soldier miraculously transported to Mars, befriends four-armed green giants and battles rampaging, carnivorous white apes, and you’ve come to the right place.

Minds as brilliant and creative as Carl Sagan (1934-1996), Gore Vidal (1925-2012), Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), William Joyce (born 1957) and Jane Goodall (born 1934) have all credited him as an influence, and his contribution to global popular culture is incalculable.

Whatever the faults or strengths of his particular novels, what is most remarkable about his work is the experience of reading ERB.  The adventure novels of ERB has the remarkable quality of affecting the reader in ways unexpected and serendipitous.  Aside from (not so) simple narrative pleasures as a compelling storyline and absolutely unfettered imagination, it is impossible to read ERB without a sense of delight and of wonder.  In the world of ERB, all bets are off and most anything is possible.  There is a sense of energy, drive and, for want of a better word … pep.  ERB is a tonic; read him and grow young again.

And … ERB believed in adventure.  Much of the literary establishment has written off ERB not only for his prose, but also for his abundant output and for his choice of genre.  ERB was no hack, churning out novels at a penny a word.  Rather, ERB lived in an imaginative landscape that was a real to him as the workday world is real to us.  His Martian society, the (mostly invented) African jungle of Tarzan, and the land at the Earth’s Core all share a sense of … conviction.  In his way, ERB was a serious novelist--as his worlds mattered to him; there was a compelling urgency to his vision that is evident in his fiction.

Finally, ERB had a very definite sense of what life should be.  Unlike many contemporary writers, ERB let it be known that life was for living.  Or, as the hero in Beyond Thirty says when finding land:

"It is the nearest land," I replied. "I have always wanted to explore the forgotten lands of the Eastern Hemisphere. Here's our chance. To remain at sea is to perish. None of us ever will see home again. Let us make the best of it, and enjoy while we do live that which is forbidden the balance of our race—the adventure and the mystery which lie beyond thirty."

I was thinking about Burroughs recently when I luckily came across his book Beyond Thirty while rummaging through the invaluable  This is a resource of public domain books available for free download – and if you want to learn more about ERB, there is no better place to start.

At any rate, I cannot think of the summers of my past without thinking, too, of ERB.  I make it a point to at least revisit one of his novels every summer, or, if possible, read one I have not come across before.  Beyond Thirty (sometimes also called The Lost Continent), was first published in All Around Magazine, and did not appear in book form in ERB’s lifetime.  It was collected in book form first in 1955, and later in 1963 with a delightful cover by artist Frank Frazetta (1928-2010). 

The story takes place in 2137, when Pan-American’s Navy Lieutenant Jefferson Turck, commander of aero-submarine Coldwater, patrols the 30th meridian from Iceland to the Azores.  The ship’s anti-gravitation screens fail, and it drifts beyond the forbidden territory into Europe.

Europe had been off limits to Pan-America since the start of the Great War in the early 20th Century, and Turck and a handful of loyal men find themselves in a now savage landscape that was once the civilized world.  Ladies and gentlemen, Beyond Thirty is a corker.

Most science fiction is never really about the future – but, rather, serves as a distorted mirror to the present.  Written in 1915, the world was then plunging into the conflict of the Great War.  The vast majority of the American population (and their politicians) favored an isolationist approach.  What would the world be like, ERB seems to ask, if the New World withdrew from the world stage?  It would appear as if ERB anticipated the American Century before most of the world did – for his tale tells of a unified North, Central and South America that has achieved many marvels of super-science, while war-ravaged Europe perishes when left to its own devices.

Also interesting is what ERB posits happens to a Europe ravaged by global conflict without American intervention.  In short, England descends into barbarism, the countryside now ravaged by wild animals that were once kept in zoos.  Continental Europe is now largely enslaved by Moslems from Abyssinia – who are using slave labor and whatever military expertise they have to prepare for a definitive conflict with the sleeping giant that is China.  With a little tweaking, it would seem as if the foreign policy concerns of a century ago were as pressing today as they were then.

Beyond Thirty is a remarkable and satisfying romp by one of the masters of the form.  It is an extremely short novel, and as a free download, would serve as a terrific introduction to the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Billy’s Booger, A Memoir (Sorta), by William Joyce

This week, we look at some books that make for perfect summer reading, and we start with something special.  Any new book by author, illustrator, filmmaker and poster boy for high-spirited shenanigans William Joyce (born 1957) is a cause for celebration.  But his new book – Billy’s Booger, A Memoir (Sorta) – is sufficient for bursting out into song, headstands while doing a Tarzan yell, and unrestrained fits of the hokey-pokey.

Not that Billy’s Booger is your ordinary, wonderful book.  It’s snot.  It is something quite unique – an illustrated memoir by a master of the form.  In it, he chronicles his participation in a school-book competition, and includes his first opus, Billy’s Booger – The Memoir of a Little Green Nose Buddy.  In short, this is the portrait of the artist as a (very) young man, and provides an insight into the formative components that make up Joyce’s protean imagination.

The story does snot have many fairy tale elements, despite its very traditional beginning of Once upon a time.  Or, as Joyce starts his narrative, Once upon a time, when TV was in black and white, and there were only three channels, and when kids didn’t have playdates -- they just roamed free in the “out of doors” there lived a kid named Billy.

And we’re off for an in-depth look into the Joycean imagination.  Most books in Joyce’s oeuvre exist largely as showcases for his stunning depictions of glowing, nostalgic Americana.  Billy’s Booger, however, is different – it has the full complement of stunning illustrations (some, the finest of his career), but is more of a masterpiece of design than anything else.

Consider – Joyce includes his initial foray into book creation as a special insert into the book itself, published on different weight green construction paper (and printed in what appears to be white chalk).  In addition to that, Joyce reproduces the illustrative style of 1950s-60s hygiene texts, along with loose-leaf paper doodles, and also includes several loving homages to classic newspaper comic strips.  Nor does he miss an opportunity to display his obsessive creativity and imagination: the endpapers include schoolboy doodles of the most mischievous sort, including my favorite: Replace Hallway Floors with TRAMPOLINES – why has this not happened? 

Joyce fills the book with quotations of his many obsessions, as well as many of his early books.  In what may be my favorite illustration in the book, Joyce’s depicts his younger self creating his first magnum opus.  In the background, just perceptible, is the poster from the 1933 King Kong, one of Joyce’s seminal influences.  Nearby is a model spaceship in the mode of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (Joyce’s sense of science fiction, like that of your correspondent, is locked in 1930s art deco futurism).  On his desk is a brontosaur that may well serve as the model for his later creation, Dinosaur Bob, and doodles on his desk bring to mind his most recent book, The Mischievians.

In other parts of the book, you will see references to his earlier works, including George Shrinks, Roli Poli Oli, and perhaps even a nod to his sometimes collaborator, Michael Chabon.  There is even a little doodle that will become the logo for his animation and imagination company, Moonbot.

And Joyce simply never lets up.  In those pages where he recreates classic comic strips, I was able to spot homages to Peanuts, L’il Abner, a gorgeous Little Nemo page, Flash Gordon (of course) and Dick Tracy.  It is in his affections and deeply-rooted loves that Joyce reminds me most, perhaps, of the late Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).  Like Bradbury, one of the great writers of the last century, Joyce wears his heart and his loves on his sleeve – which is perhaps where they belong.  It is not a fashionable way of looking at the world; and certainly the last thing anyone could ever accuse Joyce of was being “ironic.”  But it is honest, and sweet and boyish and … peppy.  I can’t read Joyce (or Bradbury, for that matter) and not feel young again, or at least young at heart.  If for no other reason, Joyce deserves a medal, perhaps with an oak leaf cluster, if they have one lying around somewhere.

More literal minded readers will wonder how much of Billy’s Booger is “true.”  Well what does it mean when one promises the truth in a memoir?  Is this the actual book Joyce created in his boyhood, reproduced here without editorializing?  Did he, in fact, have such a happy relationship with his principal?  (If so, Joyce was doubly, if not triply blessed.)  And … are these pages lit by the glow of personal nostalgia?

Well … what does it matter?  Billy’s Booger is thickly crusted with enough biographical data to have more than a kernel of truth, and this is the artist’s biography as he remembers it.  Perhaps, one day, there will be a full-fledged autobiography or third-person biography to enjoy in addition to the Booger.

In a culture that values its heroes and children’s entertainment when it’s “dark,” the wonderful world of William Joyce provides a much-needed corrective.  His world is a place of sun-kissed landscapes, mid-century American optimism, and unfettered fun.  His books are for very young children, very old people, and everyone and anyone in between.

For those reasons, and many others, the book Billy’s Booger is our pick of the week.