Monday, November 30, 2009

Weighing in on Laura, two weeks too late

It’s too late to add anything new to the debate surrounding The Original of Laura.

The final (incomplete) work of Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov has been on book store shelves for more than two weeks now, and was a popular discussion topic for years before that.

The question amongst the literati is not if Laura is good or bad. In fact, it’s too far from finished to be anything more than interesting.

The question is should Laura even exist.

Nabokov asked the story, which only exists as 138 index cards with fragments of ideas scrawled upon them, be burnt after his death. The request in itself is not unusual. Franz Kafka asked his friend Max Brod to destroy his unfinished works. (Brod couldn’t bring himself to do it.) Nabokov even threatened to burn his classic Lolita, but his wife prevented him.

It was the same wife, Vera, who Nabokov charged with burning Laura after he died. She could not bring herself to do it. Nor could she bring herself to profit from it. The decision eventually fell to their son Dmitri Nabokov.

Dmitri doesn’t smell like a profiteer. He has protected the fidelity of his father’s work. He hasn’t sewn Vladimir’s words together into some revisionary piece as Hemingway’s grandson did. He has even included facsimiles of the index cards, so readers can sequence them in the order they think Vladimir intended.

Naturally, Dmitri’s decision to publish Laura has its critics.

Tom Stoppard said, “It’s perfectly straightforward: Nabokov wanted it burnt, so burn it ... At best, it’s natural curiosity – personally, I’d love to read Nabokov’s last work, but since he didn’t want me to read it, I won’t – and it’s hardly modest to make one’s own desire more important than his.”

Aleksandar Hemon compared Laura’s release to publishing someone’s grocery list.

No one can convince me that Vladimir Nabokov would be OK with the release of Laura, in this form or any other. As Hemon notes, Nabokov once wrote, “An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”

But I wouldn’t criticize Dmitri Nabokov for his decision.

Dmitri said he chose not to burn Laura because “if it happens nobody will ever have a chance to read it.”

But I don’t think Dmitri did this for others. He did this for himself.

Perhaps, Dmitri could not live with the thought of burning Laura. It is, after all, much easier to give the order than to be the hatchet man.

Maybe it’s my agnostic nature, but I don’t think Vladimir Nabokov is looking up or down from his place in the afterlife and shaking his fist at Dmitri. Who cares what Vladimir Nabokov would think of Laura’s release? He is not here to think it.

Dmitri made a difficult decision, a decision that could not satisfy everyone. While it may have public ramifications, it was still a personal matter. This is a man trying to decide what to do with a piece of his father’s legacy. With all due respect to Hemon and Stoppard, this does not involve them.

-Jason Lea,


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Rhymes of the Ancient Mariner

Everything I know about poetry, I learned from hip-hop.

Without knowing it, I learned the figurative trope of antanaclasis. Same goes for kenning, metonymy and assonance.

Antanaclasis is when a person uses the same word twice, but the word’s meaning changes with each repitition.

For example, Vince Lombardi once said if someone isn’t fired with enthusiasm, they’ll be fired with enthusiasm.

Cam’ron taught me antanaclasis when he rapped, “Get him a Mauri flow, from the Mauri show/[Mess] around, y’all gonna be up on the Maury Show.”

In fact, Cam’ron’s entire style is derived from assonance and antanaclasis. Of course, I didn’t know that as a 17-year-old. I just knew he liked to repeat vowel sounds and words with different denotations. (No man has wrung more meaning from the words “China” and “white.”)

I knew that Pimp C was using “Whitney” and “Bobby” as slang for cocaine and marijuana, respectively. I didn’t know that scholars called that metonymy or that it’s a poetic technique that dates back to Sophocles.

No, I learned that when I read Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop by Adam Bradley.

Bradley is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College who earned his doctorate from Harvard University. He analyzes rap lyrics for their use of poetic techniques.

The associations Bradley makes are stunning but appropriate.

Just in the introduction, Bradley notes that Ice T’s “6 ‘N the Mornin’” uses the same cadence as Langston Hughes’s Sylvester’s Dying Bed.

Not impressed, you say. Everyone knows Hughes has influenced every “black” genre of American music since the blues.

OK, he also associates the tradition of kenning, in which two poets would compare their virtuosity by assuming cumulative titles, to the Smoothe da Hustler and Trigger tha Gambler hit “Broken Language.” Raekwon with James Baldwin. “Rapper’s Delight” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Bradley does it all in his Book of Rhymes; and, as silly as some of these juxtapositions seem, Bradley makes them work.

Book of Rhymes would best serve someone who loves hip-hop but doesn’t know poetry or vice-versa. Honestly, if someone is well-versed in both, Bradley’s text will be unnecessary.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Bradley’s hip-hop cred is solid for a Harvard grad. He references artists as diverse as Immortal Technique and Kool Moe Dee. However, he botches at least two facts in his book.

One, it was Big Boi, not Andre 3000, who proclaimed he was “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails.”

Two, Notorious B.I.G. did not end the story rap “N---- Bleed” by crashing his Range Rover. It was his pursuer’s Range that got towed because it was double parked by a hydrant. (That’s a serious detail to someone who memorized almost the entirety of Life After Death in 1997.)

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 20, 2009

Old People Shake their Canes at Twilight

With New Moon premiering today, Tricia and I thought it would be fun to read the first Twilight book. Besides, it’s been awhile since we’ve done anything for our massive fanbase of teenage girls.

Turns out “fun” was the wrong word...

I wanted to like Twilight, truly. I’ve almost given up on having books to discuss with my kids and my daughter has devoured the Twilight series. I thought this could be it.

But having read the first in the series, I don’t think I’ll be reading the rest.
Don’t misunderstand though. I am glad that my daughter and her friends enjoy the series and I hope they keep reading the books.

I understand the appeal, and if I were in high school I’d likely be entranced by Edward Cullen too.

What girl doesn’t dream of an impossibly handsome, well-to-do guy who does anything to ensure her safety and happiness!

Edward fills that bill.

But the novel itself is so not good.

Has no one noticed that the Cullens don’t age? Don’t eat?

How can Bella discover Edward is a vampire in a matter of weeks while others just accept the fact that the family is odd.

How can she accept that he’s a vampire in a matter of seconds?!

How can this story drag on for 500 pages!

Where is the depth? Even when Edward talks about his “change” so little is revealed to the reader. The same is true when Bella talks about why she moved to live with her father, why the Cullens are “vegetarians,” how they manage to survive undetected ...

And the writing itself drew more than a few eye rolls.

“The meadow, so spectacular to me at first, paled next to his magnificence.”

“I wanted so badly to run, but I was frozen. I couldn’t even flinch away.”

“Directly behind me, Tyler Crowley was in his recently acquired used Sentra, waving.”

“His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.”

Yet, somehow Stephanie Meyer has managed to capture the hearts of millions with her series.

I won’t be picking up any of the sequels, but I know my daughter and her friends will.

Twilight is to teenage girls as superhero comics are to teenage boys.

It’s emotional pornography. It touches the right spots until it elicits a cheap feeling of gratification.

Reviews of Twilight tended toward the positive. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said it was “propelled by suspense and romance in equal parts.” New York Times selected it as an editor’s choice.

I don’t see how anyone older than 18 could get into it.

Some sort of disclaimer is necessary before I continue. It’s easy — fashionable, even — for an online critic to bash a mega-successful book. Jumping on a bandwagon may be trite, but snubbing a popular book is still pandering to a specific crowd.

So let me make this clear. I’m not a literary elitist. I’ve never read anything by Marcel Proust book. I dislike Charles Dickens. I read all of the Harry Potter books and unapologetically enjoyed more than half of them. (The first two were typical children’s fare. The fifth one was bloated beyond justification.)

I was willing to give Twilight a fair shake, but its tactics are as subtle as Batman headbutting a henchman.

Twilight is designed to dazzle adolescent females, and I can see how it would work. The reader is supposed to be Isabella Swan — bookish, awkward, isolated. She doesn’t feel accepted by anyone anywhere. And then she meets Edward.

Edward has the musculature of a Greek sculpture (Meyer’s words), the face of an angel (also Meyer’s words), plays the piano and, yes, ladies, he can dance.

He’s also protective of Isabella and completely devoted to her.

In other words, he’s about as realistic as Wonder Woman asking me out for a date.

Comic books have been fairly criticized for creating impossible ideals of female beauty. Edward is their inevitable counterpart, the impossible ideal of male chivalry.

He exists for young woman to swoon over, and Twilight has a few passages that seem borrowed from bawdier bodice-rippers. (To be fair, vampires are a ready metaphor for the dangers of sex. A sex-less vampire is like a hair-less werewolf.)

Edward’s non-character would be more forgivable if there were something else to sustain this story, but Meyer has no new ideas to add to the vampire genre.

This is a stereotypical teen romance (new girl meets brooding loner) paired with a stereotypical vampire story (young woman is endangered by bloodsucking villain; hero must save her.)

Also, Meyer paces Twilight frustratingly. A romantic plot meanders for 375 pages until a villain is introduced. The villain, another vampire named James, actually isn’t half bad. He’s sadistic, clever and adds tension to a narrative that often drifts. But his motives are generic. He seems like an afterthought, something an editor told Meyer to add.

Meyer’s heart seems to be invested in the romantic will-they/won’t-they/how-can-they relationship of Isabella and Edward. Meyer only gives Edward the slightest of reasons for his unshakable devotion to Isabella. (You’re my favorite flavor, he explains.) But that’s fine, as long as you can identify strongly with Isabella.

But I can’t. Pick your reason: age, gender, social skills...

It’s all decent escapism if you’re a teenage girl; but if you’re anything else, Twilight is a waste of your time.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 16, 2009

The return of Langston Hughes's foreclosed home

It’s not a hangover if you’re still drunk.

Welcome to the belated melange.

Philip Roth, Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons all have new books. But what am I most excited about? Stephen King.

Under the Dome has received some enthusiastic reviews, and I’ve had a soft spot for the guy ever since I stole a copy of his autobiography/advice manual, On Writing, from the hotel where I was honeymooning. (King’s advice to young writers: write a lot and expect rejection.)

I’m procuring a copy of “Dome” as soon as I finish “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop.”

A nonprofit community development group bought one of Langston Hughes’s old Cleveland homes. As you may recall, the bank had foreclosed on it earlier this year.

The development group, The Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp., might renovate the house for sale or possibly set up a Langston Hughes Museum if another nonprofit organization is willing to buy or rent the house.

Jay Garner, the group’s community development director, said, “Langston Hughes represented a big part of the cultural heritage of this city.”

I’m not sure if I buy that. Langston Hughes is, was, will always be the man. But I couldn’t tell you what his cultural impact on Cleveland — specifically, Cleveland — was. He was vital part of the Harlem Renaissance. He published his Simple columns in the Chicago Defender. But what pieces of art did Cleveland drive him to write?

Finally, for something completely different, McSweeney’s presents The Police Blotter Shakespeare.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Celebrate Veterans Day with Halloween Leftovers

I thought it would be cute to write something about Dracula for Halloween. Y’know, vampires and terror and stuff like that. Unfortunately, it took me about two weeks longer to read the book than I expected.

Consequently, I present to you—just in time for Veterans Day: Four thoughts I had while reading Dracula.

1. Bram Stoker has some issues with women. He seems to characterize them as only angelic victims or voluptuous succubae. Lucy and Mina are both placed on pedestals until they are transformed into something unholy. The only other female characters that appear in more than one scene are a trio of lascivious vampires who threaten to seduce and suck male victims dry.

While Count Dracula is portrayed as unattractive, the female vampires are described as beautiful but vulgar. They use their looks to beguile victims. (Men, I should say. They never attempt to prey on another woman.) Simply put, they’re diseased whores. They use their bodies to seduce and infect men.

But what about Mina and Lucy? Stoker is effusive in his praise of them. He even credits Mina with having a “man brain.” (His words, not mine.) This is a different type of sexism, but sexism none the less. If you call someone an angel, you may mean it as a compliment, but you’re still dehumanizing them. A person can’t be both divine and human. (Except in Greek and Roman myth, and those gods weren’t very angelic anyhow.)

Stoker creates an angel/demon dichotomy for his women. They can be one or the other, but not human.

2. Stoker uses several characters’ journals to tell the story of Dracula. It’s a cool idea to switch viewpoints between chapters.

The only problem is Stoker doesn’t shift voice, even when he shifts narrators. Almost all of the six or so characters who share narration duties write in the exact same style—Stoker’s. (The one exception is when Stoker adopts the style of a late 1800s newspaper writer.)

My city editor John Bertosa—you may remember him as the bane of my existence—can’t do imitations to save his life. All of them sound like a high-pitched John Wayne. Stoker has the same problem. No matter who he’s trying to write as, it always sounds like Stoker.

3. Dracula must have been terrifying when it was first written; but now that all of its ideas have been re-used a million times, a reader can see all of the surprises coming about 50 pages in advance.

For example, when Van Helsing reveals that Lucy’s been bitten by a vampire, all the characters are shocked. Meanwhile, the reader will think, “Well, of course! Why do you think she had two holes in her freakin’ neck?”

I can’t blame Stoker or Dracula for that. It’s not his fault that his story was so popular that everybody decided to co-opt his ideas. I have no reason to believe that Stoker’s tactics were horror clichés when he wrote Dracula. Rather, they became clichés because of it.

However, there is one genuine surprise in Dracula. It involves a communion wafer and Mina. It’s the one scare that Stoker doesn’t oversell with 30 pages of foreshadowing.

4. Finally, most anticlimactic ending ever.

I can’t call Dracula a bad story or even a bad novel. It just hasn’t aged well. People borrowed its ideas so heavily that even the source material seems derivative now.

That’s all I got for now. I might have more vampire-related stuff for you soon.

-Jason Lea,

Labels: , , ,

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Diversity Dichotomy

My two readers deserve better than me. They really do.

Two posts in a week? And when’s the last time I actually wrote about a book? (Answer: Last Tuesday.)

Unfortunately, my streak of content-less content continues today. Instead, we get another post about what other people are writing about books.

Publisher’s Weekly released its Top 10 list for the year. It included no female authors. (Twenty-nine women made its Top 100 list.)

In the words of PW:

We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the “big” books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male.

This did not pacify bloggers who felt women had been ignored.

Susan Steinberg replied on The Rumpus:

The PW editor explains in her short accompanying text that the deciders of the Best 10 list “ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz.” Which is kind of brilliant in a way. Because everyone knows if you ignore things—like how I sometimes try to ignore the homeless guy who blocks my path when I’m walking to work, because it’s just too much to deal with in the morning—you can maybe make those things go away.

Women in Letters and Literary Arts (WILLA) has replied by compiling a list of Great Books by Women in 2009.

I have not read any of the books in the Top 10. I rarely catch a trendy author until about 10 years after he or she dies. Consequently, I cannot say if Publisher’s Weekly identified the 10 best books of 2009 or if they ignored a woman’s masterstroke (intentionally, or otherwise.)

However, I tend to agree with the sensibilities of John Matthew Fox who said:

When people use the notion of diversity to bludgeon a selection of literature, what they are really encouraging is not diversity per se, but their unique cocktail of diversity. For instance, they complain there aren’t enough women. Or enough international authors. Or enough writers of color. (Or, as this blog might even argue, not enough short story collections!).

In other words, they’re encouraging prejudice/special favor toward a specific group of people under the guise of “diversity.” But this diversity can never be achieved. As soon as you add more women, or more authors in translation, this skews some other—still significant—portion of the list’s demographic.

What about diversity of age? What about diversity of religion? What about diversity of fame? What about diversity of education? Diversity of class? Diversity of Genre (no poetry?) Diversity of single/married/polygamous? These diversities are no less important, yet they are often ignored by people invoking diversity as a moral good.

Once again, without doing a lot of reading (more reading than one person can probably do alone considering the amount of books that come out every year), I cannot say if PW’s list is an example of sexism or a stand against unnecessary political correctness.

-Jason Lea,

Monday, November 2, 2009

The e-quivalent of a clip show

I owe you guys a real post. Unfortunately, you’re getting a series of links.

Link one: Gregory Maguire has released a free novel.

The idea behind The Next Queen of Heaven and its publisher, Concord Free Press, is to release books for free and encourage those who receive them to give a charitable donation “to a local charity, someone who needs it or a stranger on the street.”

That’s a nice notion. By giving the reader something for free, it encourages them to be charitable, as well.

Unfortunately, I predict this backfiring. Only 2,500 copies of Queen have been published. Maguire’s too popular an author for these not to end up on eBay with exorbitant price tags (especially with Christmas coming.)

That doesn’t make Maguire of Concord Free Press’s gesture any less thoughtful. It just means some people can’t understand the spirit of charity.

Link two: Authors from China are joining the “Google must be stopped” club.

Authors from China are saying Google scanned their books without permission. Google is saying the small portions of text that can be read online amount to fair use.

This begs the question how does “fair use,” a phrase from national law, apply to international activity. The story from the New York Times does not answer that question. It only says that some authors have their rights protected by international treaties.

Link three: Omnivoracious, Amazon’s book blog, has released its Top 100 list for the year.

Final link: Gore Vidal weighs in on Roman Polanski.

Q: So what’s your take on Polanski, this many years later?

Polanski’s answer: I really don’t give a (expletive deleted, but can be guessed easily). Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?

Gore Vidal then attributes Polanski’s trouble to anti-Semitism. Of course, the problem is that Polanski’s Jewish — not that he pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. (Polanski said it was consensual. The victim did not. Whether or not it was is legally immaterial, if I understand correctly, because the age of consent in California is 16.)

Where’s Norman Mailer when you need him?

Jason Lea,

P.S. Due to my self-imposed moratorium, I refuse to link to any stories about the announced prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Apparently, it is a prequel using Jane Austen’s characters but none of her writing, which is a shame, because the best parts of the original Zombies all came from the source material.

Labels: ,