Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time


            For all of you ladies out there looking for an anti-wrinkle cream, I’ve got something better: A Wrinkle in Time*.  

            A Wrinkle in Time is a “children’s book” in that it appeals to childhood curiosities. I read it for the first time at age twelve, and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature in sparking the imagination. Similar to Dr. Seuss books, A Wrinkle in Time describes various fantastical worlds with just enough detail. You get a feel for how the world might appear and then you fashion it in your mind’s eye. It’s a thrilling process that engages you personally as a reader.

            Transforming written word into a visual medium can either validate or wreck the picture that you’ve constructed in your mind’s eye. Or somewhere in between.

            I re-read A Wrinkle in Time last week in preparation for the movie, and I was flooded with images that my brain had retained from age twelve. I immediately recalled my own configurations of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Watch (three of the novel’s main characters). Reconciling the film’s adaptations with my own visions was enjoyable at times, frustrating at others. I do not think the movie will mean as much if you haven’t read the book; nostalgia is a bitch. 

            At its core, A Wrinkle in Time follows an adventure that takes place as the good forces of the universe fight the evil forces. When good vs. evil is the predominant theme, there’s bound to be a cheesiness factor. That cheddar is easier to swallow in the book than it is in the movie, where the happy ending is summed up in a paragraph rather than a ten-minute-long hugging scene scored by bad music.

            Oprah’s makeup in the movie is awesome, by the way.

            The novel A Wrinkle in Time receives 3 out of 5 camel humps. If you read it as a child, you’ll appreciate the re-read. If you are a child at heart, you’ll appreciate the imaginative elements. If you’re a straight up adult, you suck.

*L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Crosswicks, Ltd., 1962. Print.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005

           Almost two years ago, I reviewed The Best American Short Stories 2013—one annual collection amongst many “Best American” categories. I poked fun at the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, suggesting it was an attempt to “lure angsty, rebellious teens." I wasn’t entirely wrong! Each year, some lit-savvy Bay Area high schoolers choose “the best” works of that year from a range of genres (fiction, nonfiction, journalism, cartoons, etc.). Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (highly recommend), oversees the group and edits the final compilation.

            I read The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, which I randomly selected from a lovely mom and pop bookstore in Charlottesville (shout out to Heartwood Books). Beck wrote the introduction because of course he did. Beck does everything. Aside from make music that I actually enjoy listening to. Sorry, Beck.

            Beck does a good job of explaining the value of reading something not required—the relationship you have with a form of entertainment that you personally, actively seek out. Referring to his childhood reading curiosities, he says, “Everything we gravitated to probably had the weight of something discovered on one’s own, like we’d uncovered some secret thing nobody else knew” (Eggers, xxxi).

            As with any collection, I love some, like others, and don’t like a few. I love Hell-Heaven by Jhumpa Lahiri—author of Interpreter of Maladies. As in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Lahiri integrates her Indian American experiences to show a coming-of-age culture clash for first-generation immigrants. 

            I also love Al Franken’s Tearaway Burkas and Tinplate Menorahs—a comedic account of his 1999 USO tour. Trigger warning: one of the sketches he details is more troubling in light of the sexual assault allegations from his 2006 USO tour. I’m going to keep my opinions to myself on this one (ahem, martyr) and simply say that his piece is very well written; it makes me laugh and gives insight as to what a USO tour entails.

            I love George Saunders’ Bohemians and Manifesto. Apparently these high school kids love him too, considering they include him twice. Because he’s the short story king, I’ve already reviewed his collection Tenth of December, which I have truly not stopped thinking about since I read it two years ago. I revisit it from time to time. It’s a bedside table kind of book.

            I do not like They Came Out Like Ants!, an article by William T. Vollmann that drones on and on and on and on and on and on about underground tunnels built by Chinese immigrants in Mexicali.

            Do you like some of these things? Do you not like some of these things? I’m going to suggest that you will probably like most of these things. As indebted as I am to The Best American Short Stories series for provoking the short story addict within me, the mix of fiction and nonfiction within a collection makes The Best American Nonrequired Reading especially appealing. I give the 2005 edition 4 out of 5 humps.

*Eggers, Dave, and Beck, eds. The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. Print.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art

           Stepping on my soapbox for a sec! Improv has significantly improved my life, and if you’re on the fence about taking a class, DO IT. It puts you back in touch with the imaginative, vulnerable, and curious parts of yourself that shone more readily as a child. It improves your quick-thinking skills, teaches you how to communicate better, and allows you to comfortably trust your impulses. Above all, it’s a blast, and you’re usually surrounded by very funny, kind, supportive people. Alright, stepping off.

            My interest in improv led me to Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art by Sam Wasson. Wasson brings us back to the roots of improvisation before its practitioners even knew what "it" was or what to call “it”. I use these terms loosely because the beauty of improv is that it’s a hotbed of experimentation. It’s a uniquely nebulous form because the possibilities are endless. 

            Over the years, various improvisers have taken their interpretation of the form and founded theaters. Improv Nation focuses mainly on the evolution of Second City in Chicago. Wasson’s biggest asset and biggest downfall is the number of players he’s dealing with. There have been so many talented and pivotal performers, writers, and instructors over the course of improv’s history, forcing the book to explode in a million different directions simultaneously. Try talking about SCTV (Second City TV) in depth while you talk about Harold Ramis’ relationship with Bill Murray in Caddyshack, a film largely reliant on Murray’s improvisations. Try talking about Del Close teaching Wiccan-inspired improv classes while the UCB troupe comes together elsewhere. It’s a lot.

            The vastness of the material can come across as frantic or recycled. Sometimes I want to hear more details on a particularly interesting offshoot; sometimes I feel like I’ve grasped the gist and I don’t need to hear it again packaged in a different person. But who can blame a guy for trying? Wasson aggregated so much information and kept the reader up to date with how media, cultural events, and the political climate influenced the styles of the players and the theaters every step of the way.

            I’m a sucker for inside scoop, and Improv Nation presents hot gossip on a platter. Steve Carell brought Judd Apatow The Forty-Year Old Virgin based on a character he gravitated towards in improv scenes. Del Closes’ infamous drug use made Second City’s whipped cream bills outrageously high because of the nitrous oxide. Stephen Colbert was ten when his father and two brothers died, and his resulting insecurities helped fuel his interest in The Colbert Report. Several movies that we know and love were created primarily through improvisational techniques. Etc.

            Do any of the following people interest you: John Belushi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Sedaris, Matt Walsh, Adam McKay, Chris Farley? The name-dropping goes on and on. I learned plenty about people whose names I recognized and expanded my theatrical palette by tuning into new names I should have known all along, like Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Thanks for the comprehensive history lesson, Wasson; Improv Nation receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Wasson, Sam. Improv Nation: How We Made A Great American Art. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017. Print.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Welcome to the Monkey House

             If you’re not a fan of fiction, then you haven’t read Vonnegut. He’s the only author who I feel complete confidence recommending. Don’t know where to start? It really doesn’t matter much. I could guide you to a certain extent—and I have, in my reviews of Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions. But Vonnegut stays true to his bizarre, dystopic science-fiction themes, his satirical voice, and his philosophical undertones. You know what you’re going to get. And it’s going to be remarkable.

            Welcome to the Monkey House* is a collection of 25 short stories. Vonnegut says in the preface, “the contents of this book are samples of work I sold in order to finance the writing of the novels. Here one finds the fruits of Free Enterprise” (Vonnegut, xiv). I adore the novels and I’m thankful for the work that enabled them, but this collection is intelligent, witty, and entertaining in its own right. The short story format, which I’ve hailed in the past, is ideal for a man like Vonnegut who is overflowing with ideas. He’s able to house an eccentric character in a brief, brilliant world that explodes in its brevity rather than fizzling out in lengthy, convoluted plot. The beginnings and ends don’t need to be neat and tidy; he can throw an interesting character in your face, you accept the world as a given, and you enjoy the story for what it is.

            Although each story in Welcome to the Monkey House is distinct, Vonnegut deals with similar themes. Like: the commoditization of pleasure, the ephemerality of youth, the inevitability of mortality, etc. He tinkers with the parameters of our current planet, changing the rules to explore the realities of life that haunt us the most. 

            For instance, some of his stories feature:
-A world where equality is paramount. Various handicaps are introduced to make everyone on equal footing (ex: to reduce someone’s intelligence).
-Required ethical birth control pills to combat overpopulation. They don’t take away the ability to reproduce; they take away all sexual pleasure to make the act unenticing.
-Prisoners of war subjected to a chess match for their lives. The pieces are human and taking a piece is taking a life.
-A computer that develops sentience.

            His stories make you THINK. Vonnegut is one of the most self-aware authors I’ve ever read and his uncanny ability to challenge his experiences forces you to challenge your own. My only complaint about the collection is that it lists the year published but it doesn’t name the medium. A small price to pay for a work that is such a gift to my own meandering through existence! Welcome to the Monkey House receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Welcome to the Monkey House. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1968. Print.