Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

How the wild things sound

January 30, 2008

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Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one of the great works of children’s literature. Playful, inventive and completely inside kids’ heads, it tracks young Max’s journey from getting into trouble for making mischief in his wolf suit through anger and back to the familiar comfort of home.

The story begins with this deceptively simple, delightfully run-on sentence: The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

As Max stews in his room, it transforms into a jungle, and the illustrations grow from small, contained, wide-bordered images to full-bleed spreads spilling off the pages. As his anger subsides and the comforting smell of dinner reaches him, the fabulous Sendak illustrations shrink back down.

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So when I read recently on New York magazine’s website that ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O is writing “pretty much the whole” soundtrack’ to an upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are [with a script by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonzes, no less], I thought it was one of those counterintuitive but brilliant choices.

Having seen the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live a couple of times, I know Karen O is capable of genuine wildness, of careening right up to the edge of out of control and dancing on it. She’s also capable of playing wild thing dress-up and throwing herself into it with abandon. Just as important, though, there are also occasional balancing moments of vulnerability and smallness in her performances. The YouTube video below demonstrates her ability to channel Max’s command to the other wild things, “Let the wild rumpus start.” [You’ll have to take my word on the vulnerable side.]

All of which makes me think she can give this live action film the genuinely wild edge it needs. As much as I love Randy Newman’s music [I really have to talk about him in the Kitchen Boombox sometime], this film is not Toy Story. It has the opportunity to go places much darker, much deeper. I think Ms. O may be just the person to get it there.

Hardboiled and well done

October 10, 2007

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Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” For me, one of the biggest joys of reading is finding authors who so unerringly find the right word, the right phrase, every time. I will put up with so-so story lines or plot holes you could drive a truck through if the writer uses language well.

For my money, no one used language like Raymond Chandler did. Perhaps the ultimate pulp fiction writer, he broke into the detective novel business writing for publications like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Writing from the late 1930s until his death in the late 50s, Chandler created one of the most memorable and archetypal detective characters of all time, Philip Marlowe. Dashiell Hammett may have invented the American hardboiled detective novel, but Chandler perfected it, with classics like The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely.

For me, Hammett’s writing is almost a parody of the genre, filled with over the top tough guy talk. Chandler refined it, dialed it back. Oh, Marlowe was plenty tough. So tough that he could just be it without saying he was. Instead, as Chandler’s protagonist and narrator, he sizes up tough situations and just deals with them—with a detached sense of humor and a rock solid, if world-weary sense of right.

This whole diatribe started with me thinking of one of my favorite passages of 20th century American writing the other day. I’ll end with it. Don’t skip ahead.

Trying to find the exact quote, I came upon a treasure trove of Raymond Chandler lines and knew I had to make up an excuse to share them. These are all classic Chandler—tough, sometimes funny, sometimes smartass, never pulling any punches, always economical in conveying everything with just a few words:

 

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”—Farewell, My Lovely

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” —Farewell, My Lovely

“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” —The High Window

“I felt like an amputated leg.” —“Trouble Is My Business”

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” —“Red Wind”

 

Chandler’s writing is filled with moments like these, passages that make you stop and reread them, savoring them before moving on. And for all his nailing Marlowe’s wisecracking, gimlet-eyed worldview, he can also deliver heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of a late evening sky over a Los Angeles street.

So the Raymond Chandler passage that beats out all others for me? It also comes from Farewell, My Lovely. Philip Marlowe is lying in bed in a cheap hotel room, waiting for it to get dark enough to try to sneak onto a boat in the harbor where some very bad people are most certainly waiting. In these few lines, Marlowe assesses not only the situation, but his life as a whole. And then he does what he has to do.

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“It’s not a diary, it’s a journal!”

May 16, 2007

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Not sure what’s got me thinking about high school this week, but what can you do?

With any luck, everyone remembers a teacher in his or her life who made a difference—or at least imparted something interesting or valuable that stuck in the brain more or less permanently. I’ve actually been very fortunate and had several such teachers. Including one whose lasting effect surprised me later in life. Certainly when I was sitting in Miss Carroll’s English Literature class in high school, I didn’t expect her to make the list.

But make it she did. Twice, actually. The first time was for telling me about Samuel Pepys. Pepys [pronounced Peeps, at least by Samuel’s branch of the family] was born in London in 1633, the son of a tailor and one of eleven children. He rose from these beginnings to become an adviser to King Charles II, the acknowledged “right hand of the Navy” and later, a member of Parliament.

samuel_pepys.jpgOf course, none of this would have made him more than a blip on some doctoral student’s radar screen, except for two things: First, he was a prolific diarist, writing huge volumes of diaries for ten years. Second, those ten years encompassed both the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

Our high school textbook, being a high school textbook, focused primarily on these two major events and Pepys’ description of them as they unfolded, told very much as one would in a diary—or today, perhaps, in a blog. Here’s part of a passage from September 2, 1666, describing the fire’s beginnings: “Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .”

But while the textbook stuck pretty much to such matters as this, Miss Carroll—tall, big-boned, imposing maiden aunt Miss Carroll, with her equally imposing bosom and her crooked toothed smile [somehow appropriate for a teacher of English literature]—hinted at another side of Pepys’ diaries with a twinkle in her eye. It seems Pepys, the great man and knower of kings was also a sometimes petty and petulant man [particularly around his servants] and quite often a knower of women who weren’t his wife. And this being his personal diary, he felt free to record it all.

All of which makes for some fascinating reading. I didn’t pursue it at the time, but Miss Carroll had lodged it in my brain. It bubbled up from time to time until finally one evening, I found a slim volume of excerpts in the library. And more recently, I came upon this wonderful website, Samuel Pepys Diary. It contains excerpts and commentary, by year and by topic. And if you seriously get hooked, it contains the entire unabridged diary, all ten years of it. There’s even a cake recipe for the cake that was being baked in the oven of the King’s baker—the oven that started the fire.

Take a look at this wonderfully personal view of history. And if you end up bookmarking it, thank Miss Carroll and that twinkle in her eye.

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