30 March 2010

Dhalgren on Stage

Here's a nice birthday present:
On April 1 — [Samuel R.] Delany’s 68th birthday — the Kitchen will begin staging an adaptation [of Dhalgren] called Bellona, Destroyer of Cities. Its director and writer is Jay Scheib, an MIT professor and rising theater-world star who’s been obsessed with Dhalgren for years. He once devoted an MIT course to the book, and has even adapted it into a play in German.
That news comes from a good, basic overview of Delany and Dhalgren in New York Magazine. I thought the description of the novel as "like Gertrude Stein: Beyond Thunderdome" was pretty amusing. (It made me want to see a picture of Gertrude Stein with Tina Turner hair.)

The play is not strictly an adaptation of the novel, it seems:
The Kitchen adaptation aims to be the next cycle of Dhalgren: It begins where the novel ends, with a new character—a woman instead of a man—entering Bellona. "In the novel," Scheib says, "when the narrator shows up, he has sex with a woman who turns into a tree. And then he has sex with a guy, and then with a girl. Then another guy. Then a guy and a girl. So we try to keep that spirit alive."
Bellona, Destroyer of Cities runs April 1-10, and there will be a post-show discussion with Chip on April 3. I would love to be there, but it's not possible. If anybody attends the show, I'd love to hear what you think of it!

28 March 2010

Here and Back Again

I went twenty days without posting here, and it's been an eventful time, pretty much all to the good.  I took care of some giant final tasks for my father's estate, taught some classes, made progress with planning classes for the summer and fall, volunteered on a movie shoot, wrote a screenplay for a web series a friend hopes to make in Minnesota (more on that as it develops), started another screenplay I hope to browbeat another friend into filming, wrote a very difficult review of a book I'd hoped to be able to say more good things about than I was able to (more on that later), and submitted a couple of short stories to places that might be friendly toward them, since though I haven't written any new stories in quite some time, I do have a couple that have proved difficult to place with publishers because I stubbornly insist that their weirdnesses, lacunae, contradictions, and nonsense are not flaws, but charming and essential features.

In amidst it all, there was some reading.  Here are a few highlights...
  • I picked up a copy of Robert B. Parker's Looking for Rachel Wallace after reading Ron Silliman's praise of it. And it does, indeed, provide plenty of interesting fodder for anybody interested in such things as gender and machismo. It's also pretty darn entertaining.

  • Speaking of machismo, I picked up Richard Sellers's Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, and Oliver Reed from the library because it looked like a light read and I realized I knew nothing about the actual lives of the four actors it discusses. It is, indeed, a light read, but also a depressing one -- it is nothing but stories of four immensely talented people being drunk, boorish, irresponsible, and destructive. I couldn't help thinking of a much better book, Tom Dardis's The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer, where the destructive effect of alcohol on the later work of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway is contrasted with the blossoming of Eugene O'Neill's writing once he quit drinking. Sellers makes a point of noting that Burton, Harris, O'Toole, and Reed all said they had no regrets about the effect of alcohol on their lives, but it's obvious from the book that their lives were deeply hurt by their drinking.

  • I finally got around to reading Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo (aka Not Before Sundown), which won the Tiptree Award for 2004, and which I've been meaning to read at least from the time it won the award. I should have read it then. Actually, I wish I had read it before it garnered any accolades, because I think my expectations for it pretty much ruined it for me. I expected a truly great book, and got a merely good one.  And sometimes a bit less than merely good.  I found the insertion of various excerpts from fictional texts tedious and obvious, the story itself at times rather silly, and the final images more goofy than affecting. I certainly would not have disliked it all as fully as I did had I come to it blind, and I expect I would have found it more surprising and more compelling if I'd had no expectations of it being of a particular quality when I began. Alas. My loss.

  • James Naremore's More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts was a great joy to read. Naremore wrote one of my favorite books on Orson Welles, as well as an early and perceptive little book on Psycho and, most recently, a pretty good study of Kubrick. But More Than Night may be his masterpiece -- full of insights that help make even some films I've seen many times seem almost new.

  • Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana was illuminating about certain moments in the life of one of my favorite filmmakers, but it was on the whole disappointing because it spends comparatively little time on each film he made, so it ultimate felt to me quite thin. I'll have to give Truffaut at Work at try, since the Dartmouth Library has a copy, and Bill Krohn's Hitchcock at Work is marvelous, marvelous, marvelous.

  • Perhaps my favorite book read in the last month, if not during all of 2010 so far, is Helen Merrick's The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms. It's full of insights, provocations, information. I'll be writing more specifically about it in the future, but for now, just know that if you have any interest in feminism, cultural history, and/or genre fiction, you'll get a lot out of this book.
Meanwhile, just a few days ago I discovered that over a year ago Norton released a Critical Edition of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele. I love the Norton Critical Editions, but the NCE of Things Fall Apart may be the best one I've seen. The novel itself takes up just over 100 pages, and the whole book is nearly 600 pages long -- rich with background material, interviews with Achebe and other people, reviews, analyses, various material related to Achebe's critique of Heart of Darkness, etc. It's a thing of wonder and beauty.

I immediately wanted to use it in a course. But what course? I don't get to teach an African literature course, and would be hesitant to teach one at the college level, anyway, at least beyond the introductory level -- my interest in African lit is the interest of a passionate hobbyist, and my knowledge is full of gaps, ignorance, and, I'm sure, inaccuracies.

But I've been struggling to come up with a new syllabus for a course I'm teaching for the second time in the fall, The Outsider. My previous syllabus wasn't a disaster, but I'm more experienced with the sorts of students who take this course now, and I wanted to change a few things (not so much the texts, most of which actually worked pretty well, as my approach and writing assignments). The thing that I kept coming back to was the experience of teaching Nervous Conditions, a book I had had great luck with in a high school course on African novels. My Plymouth State students almost unanimously hated it -- mostly, I discovered, because they had trouble understanding it. Not the language, which is perfectly straightforward, but the cultural background. In the high school class I used the book in, by the time we got to it we had spent a few weeks learning about themes of certain similar types of African literature and the cultural situations of some of the writers. We'd had a bit of that in my first try with The Outsider, but not to an extent where it sunk in enough. College students in central New Hampshire in general education courses need to spend real time on learning about the world from which writers write if those writers are not writing from worlds that appear frequently in the students' experience of life and of media representations. Indeed, when it comes to an African country, the students need even more time to work through their knowledge, perceptions, and assumptions because so much of what they know, perceive, and assume is reductive or, often as not, flat-out wrong. Thus, Kafka made more sense to them than Dangarembga. I had not been prepared for that.

Thinking about this and about the wonderful Norton edition of Things Fall Apart , I had a eureka moment -- why not devote the entire course to African literature and perceptions of Africa in non-African writing? Surely, I could do this while also sticking to the basic idea of the Outsider course.  The general course description requires only that the course look at literature and film, include discussions of the individual in relationship to society, and emphasize differences in cultures, and include such topics as "gender, sexuality, race, class, wealth, behavior, and socialization."  No problem.  And with a course of this level -- the most basic and general offered by the University -- I wouldn't need more than my own hugely-incomplete-but-adequate-enough-for-this-purpose knowledge.

What would happen, I thought, if we read not just Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, but also The Story of an African Farm and King Solomon's Mines? And then move from there to books by post-Independence African writers? (That would also let me use another great Norton book, Modern African Drama). I immediately started making a list of possible texts -- and then realized I should probably limit myself to books currently in print, since that would make things a bit easier when it comes to making books available to 25-30 students...

Lo and behold, lots of things I wanted to use are currently unavailable. I was particularly annoyed to discover that Ngugi's Devil on the Cross is out of print. Grrr. One of the most important novels by one of the most important African novelists. Not available. And so many others, too. Not available.

But many great books are available, and I've ordered copies of some I haven't yet had an excuse to get hold of. Now I've got the excuse. I expect at least some of my posts here over the next few months will be about the books I'm either revisiting or encountering for the first time as I prepare for the course. I'm looking forward, too, to rereading Things Fall Apart, which I last read no more recently than nine years ago.  First up, though, will be The Story of an African Farm, which, I'm sad to say, I've never read before.

Jim Crace to Write One Final Novel

Jim Crace is about to publish a politically-oriented novel with what sounds like some science fiction elements, All That Follows, then write one more and be done with the whole novel-writing gig, he tells the Independent (via):
"Writing careers are short. ... For every 100 writers, 99 never get published. Of those who do, only one in every hundred gets a career out of it, so I count myself as immensely privileged. I will have written 12 novels when I finish this next book and it's enough. I'm going to stop. Too often bitterness is the end product of a writing career. I keep seeing writers who have grown bitter. And I know that I am just as likely to turn bitter as anyone else. So it's self-preservation."

Most writers would say that they are driven to write and know no other way to fill their time or make sense of the world. Crace is amused by their presumption. "My belief is that I will be quite happy not writing. JD Salinger once said, 'You've got no idea the peace of writing and not publishing,' but I am going to go one better and find the peace of not writing and not publishing. I'm looking forward to it."
Crace is a marvelous writer -- his Arcadia and Being Dead are particular favorites of mine, and he can count John Crowley among his fans.  If he follows through on his promise to stop writing (others have tried and failed), I will be sad at the thought of there being no more Crace novels, but will admire him all the more for doing something plenty of other writers should have done themselves.  It takes a particular talent to recognize you've said what you have to say.  Many writers do their best work late in their careers, but plenty don't.  Others make a career of not publishing.  Crace's willingness to say he can quit the habit of writing itself is impressive, though I wouldn't be surprised if he finds it more difficult than it seems at the moment.  I imagine shopping lists slowly getting logorrheic ... ordinary emails gaining a lyrical edge ... letters-to-the-editor that tell stories and describe characters ... maybe even ... a blog...

08 March 2010

A Few Oscar Thoughts

Posting is likely to continue to be sparse-to-nonexistent here for at least another week, but that really shouldn't cause you any sadness, because you've got a whole big series of tubes out there to explore.  You'll survive without me for a little while longer, I'm sure.  I have faith in you, dear reader.

One of the things you should certainly read is the great Steve Shaviro's marvelous post about Kathryn Bigelow, who last night became, as y'all know by now, the first woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar.  I'm all for it, even if the whole situation, like The Hurt Locker itself, is complex in its meanings and implications.

The Oscar show itself was pretty awful, but that's part of the fun of watching.  Every year, we get to say, "Wow, it's even worse than last year!"  A decade or two from now, I expect it all to be broadcast via the future equivalent of the Wii and to require all presenters to make fart jokes.

I don't expect the Academy voters to nominate many of the films I tend to most like, nor do I expect the stuff I like among nominations to win much, so this year surprised me overall.  The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and A Serious Man were all Best Picture nominees and all movies I like and respect quite a bit.  Were I an Academy member, I would have had trouble voting, because ranking those three films against each other seems pointless to me -- they're very different in their accomplishments.  I probably would have put The Hurt Locker as #1, simply because Tarrantino and the Coen Brothers have had moments of Oscar glory themselves, and it's nice to spread the wealth.

The only winners that deeply bothered me were Avatar for Cinematography and The Hurt Locker for Best Original Screenplay.  (I haven't seen enough of the Adapted Screenplay nominees yet to feel qualified to judge the results, though I bet once I've seen them all, I'll think In the Loop deserved it.  But we'll see.)  The Cinematography award for Avatar annoys the grumpy old man in me who thinks that when even a supporter admits that 70% of what is on screen was not the cinematographer's doing, then we're not talking about cinematography when we talk about what's beautiful and striking in that movie.  But I know that's just me clinging desperately to the idea that cinematography is about how the frame ends up looking, and is, ultimately, about light through a lens.  Oh well.  Get off my lawn!

Adapted Screenplay bothers me more, not because I hate The Hurt Locker (obviously), but because I see its script as good and solid, even worthy of nomination, but it's not a demonstration of truly exemplary or innovative writing -- certainly not when it's in a category that includes at least a few scripts that are exemplary and even innovative.  What was truly great about The Hurt Locker didn't have as much to do with its script as with its filming, performances, and editing.  So I'm perplexed.  It feels like the voters who chose Mark Boal's script did so because they really liked the movie overall, rather than because of the words on the page.  In comparison to something like Inglourious Basterds, where the writing is very much a central part of what makes the film successful, I just don't see what the voters saw.

I've now written more than I intended to about all this, so it's time for me to head off and work on the 1,000 things I need to get done...

02 March 2010

Secret History Revealed!

Rain Taxi has posted online an interview I conducted with James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors of The Secret History of Science Fiction.

Most of the discussion took place in a Masonic lodge in southern New Hampshire, although at one point I was blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location that smelled of patchouli and motor oil.  Jim Kelly ducked out briefly to launder some money vacation in the Cayman Islands, and John Kessel made me repeat long passages of Latin that made my skin itch.  But I let nothing stop my relentless pursuit of the truth...