This week is a cornucopia of poetry conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Billy Collins!
This week is a cornucopia of poetry conversation with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Billy Collins!
The Curator of Schlock #255 by Jeff Shuster
It’s pretty good.
I hope everyone had a good Christmas. I made some of that Hobo Chicken in the microwave made popular by Frank Whaley in the John Hughes’ classic Career Opportunities. I played Smurfs on my ColecoVision for the better part of the day. Still haven’t managed to get Smurfette naked. Maybe one of these days. Oh, and I watched Invasion U.S.A. again. Nothing says Christmas like Chuck Norris killing bad guys. You know, it really can be a wonderful life.
2018 is coming to a close. My grand experiment of covering movies from the 2010s has been trying. This is not going to be remembered as a great decade for cinema. We did get an amazing sequel to Blade Runner. I obsessed over Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The Blackcoat’s Daughter was a pleasant discovery. Maybe one just has to dig a little deeper to find the true gems of this decade. 2017’s Wilson from director Craig Johnson is one of those gems.
The movie is a character study about a man named Wilson (Woody Harrelson) who just happens to be the most obnoxious man alive. There were times while watching this movie when I wanted to reach through the screen so I could punch Wilson in the face. He seems to be an amalgamation of every obnoxious man I’ve ever known: a man who thinks he funny when he’s clearly, a man who thinks he’s smart when his intelligence is below average, a man who thinks he’s wise when he’s clearly a fool.
Wilson goes up to random strangers and starts conversations with them when they clearly don’t want to be bothered. Don’t call the guy busily typing on his laptop an asshole when he tells you he’s too busy to talk. Don’t bug the guy on bus trying to sleep, ask him about his career, and then scream at him for “working for the oligarchs.” Do not purposely cause a fender-bender with a woman you met at a pet store as a means to ask her out on a date. And I know how you hate how everyone is glued to their smart phones and their computers, ignoring the world around them, but the truth is, you’re just an illiterate when it comes to modern technology.
Loneliness gets the better of Wilson. He searches for his ex-wife, Pippi (Laura Dern), who was a prostitute and a junkie when he last knew her. When Wilson finds Pippi, she’s cleaned herself up and is working as a waitress at a fancy restaurant. They reconnect and Wilson finds out that Pippi gave birth to his child, but gave that baby girl up for adoption. Wilson then goes on a quest to locate his daughter.
Through a private investigator, he tracks her down, reveals himself to her, and takes her on road trips. This wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t a minor and legally the daughter of other people!
Wilson gets charged with kidnapping, goes to jail, annoys some Neo Nazis while in prison, and gets smashed in the face with a lunch tray. This is a brilliant movie.
The graphic novel is also worth checking out. Happy New Year!
Buzzed Books #84 by Drew Barth
Colin Winnette’s The Job of the Wasp
We’re hard in the holiday Season so that means it’s time for ghosts. Slight horror around the holidays seems like a kind of tradition—from A Christmas Carol to Santa Jaws—so I had to maintain the spirit of spirits. This is where The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette makes its entrance, and although not exactly a holiday novel itself, it still ticks off those Dickensian boxes of ghosts and orphans. The Job of the Wasp is one of those novels that excels at creating the kind of tension necessary in any good ghost story—we don’t believe in ghosts until the story makes us.
The Job of the Wasp is and isn’t a ghost story at the same time. We’re told that ghosts exist from characters outside our narrator, but that narrator completely rejects the idea at every opportunity. But the ghosts, as they appear, are something more interesting. Ghosts have become, in the orphanage the boys exist in, both tradition and a means of instilling fear. Ghosts offer control and a way of dealing with boys who aren’t necessarily well liked. We can see how Winnette sprinkles the idea of the ghost sparingly throughout the novel: little noises the narrator mentions, seeing faces that aren’t recognizable, a sudden body count. The distinct indecision is what makes the ghosts the most interesting—we can believe the narrator and accept them not being real, or we can get swept up like the rest of the boys.
The air of unreliability is thick throughout The Job of the Waspdue in no small part to our unnamed narrator. His actions, his paranoia, his constant internal monologue that paints pictures of grand schemes and conspiracies is what drives not only the story but the rest of the boys in the orphanage to hate him. And, at times, it’s not hard to see why they hate this unnamed boy.
Over the course of a few months, he fails to learn a single name or face and fails to attempt connections with the people around him. So consumed is the unnamed narrator in his paranoia that he is completely self isolated. And because we are so completely in his head, we get the sense that his unreliability is intentional, that the narrator chooses to see the world in his own way as a means of escaping from it.
Colin Winnette has crafted a deeply fascinating novel that combines some of the best elements of Dickensian character studies and Lord of the Flies-esque peril.
A story is always great with ghosts. But still. The story is a mystery, a conspiracy, a treatise on never leaving boys to their own devices, and, more than anything, an extraordinary piece of fiction that gives us a slightly altered view of our world.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.
70. Gil Younger’s 10 Things I Hate About You [The Taming of the Shrew] (1999)
Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s only story fixated on teenagers in love, but Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith adapted The Taming of the Shrew to do so.
Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s most outrageous plays. (It’s the comedy equivalent of Tis Andronicus, if you ask me.) That comedy dramatizes the institutional stresses of matrimony in Shakespeare’s time. Women were, from a legal view, property. They required a dowry—a pile of money, property, or other valuables—to protect their socioeconomic security as well as that of their husband at the time of marriage. Occasionally, this would result in a happy marriage, but security, not happiness, was the goal of this business transaction.
If a rare woman rebelled against this order (in which she was a commodity), she was a bitch, or a shrew. If such a bitch had a younger sister, by rights, the younger sister should not marry unless her elder sister did first, so a spinster could bring discord and shame upon her family.
An alcoholic bachelor of some means could bolster his security by marrying that shrew, if he were just drunk and brave enough. Shakespeare had a daring sense of humor.
This is not polite humor, or drama, for that matter.
Because the playwright worked towards a paradoxical reconciliation of these values (a woman could be her own person and yield herself as property to a patriarchal order), some dumb modern viewers become uneasy at the conclusion, as if Shakespeare were confirming that the patriarchy he has been skewering for two hours is mostlyokay, once characters have the wisdom to understand that love is required for the system to work.
Similarly, the conclusion of The Merchant of Venice has viewers wondering if Shakespeare was anti-Semitic since Shylock never does get his vengeance for losing his daughter and property (again reinforcing a woman’s identity as a commodity), and because Shylock is punished for being so inhumanly Jewish (according to the gentiles in the play).
The way comedy worked in Shakespeare time was to pretend that all was mended at the end.
Comedy ends in marriage. Tragedy ends in a pile of corpses.
By ending in such a reassuring way, Shakespeare could complicate the world in fairly tragic ways in the middle of the play. Through clowning, Shakespeare could sneak in a lot of truth about the odd ways we live our lives, even though he had to pretend like he was only kidding.
Which brings me to this question: as a young American actress, how did Julia Stiles come to star in three Shakespeare adaptations? She was in Tim Blake Nelson’s excellent O, and in Michael Almereyda’s diarrheal Hamlet.
10 Things I Hate About You is a loose adaptation that doesn’t use Shakespeare’s language and seldom nods to the wording of the original play, though pedestrian meta-references to Shakespeare abound.
The high school setting for this adaptation is a strength. Today, the parental limits for a daughter’s sovereignty makes more cultural sense than Renaissance norms for marriage. Instead of marriage, the boundaries here are for adolescent dating.
The title sequence and title make clear that this is supposed to be a teen rom-com. While the predictability of the Shakespearean comedy is often blissfully undercut, the predictability of the teen rom-com genre is, alas and fuck, sometimes grating. Occasionally, 10 Things I Hate About You seems to try too hard to be cool and outré. But the wild romantic scheming of the original is there in this adaptation, along with the surprises that this scheming brings to the schemers.
The cast takes the movie pretty far.
Allison Janney plays Ms. Perky, a dean who can instantly see all of the conniving neuroses of adolescence from a billion miles away, and dispatches their problems as quickly as possible in order to steal more time while on the job to write a lurid romance novel.
Perky suggests the fate of the spinster, whose love life is imaginary despite being pretty and smart. (This character seems to disappear halfway through the movie. I guess Janney could only get one day off from The West Wing.) This could be Kat’s fate, which doesn’t seem terrible, actually.
Comedian Larry Miller plays the concerned dad to two daughters. Miller’s posh monotone deadpan always makes him seem a bit sinister, which makes the hand-wringing of the father character of Shrew much easier to handle. (The character is pathetic at best in the original play.)
Our Petruchio, the drunken shrew-wooer, is played by Heath Ledger, who plays the part with a verve that will remind one as his turn as the Joker later in his career. Instead of a drunk, though, McCullah and Smith make his character a chaotic juvenile delinquent with a reputation that makes him beyond the respectable pale. He is dreamy, yet wrenches out of this part some real sophistication of emotion.
Both Stiles and Ledger have exquisitely downturned mouths, which became distracting once I noticed it. Do you notice it?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays—who cares?
Julia Styles plays Kat, the shrewish lefty alternative feminist whose contempt for the entire high school system makes her critical of everything, which was more or less me in high school, or college—actually I’m still that way. Stiles does not generally play Kat’s anger with a broad sense of comedy, allowing the situations and dialogue to do the comedic heavy lifting.
What ultimately makes me not quite love this movie is its disappointing conventionality. It’s zany comedy tends to feel forced when Heath Ledger is not there to deliver it, and as the story proceeds, the moral component of the film makes the attitude of Kat more about her own personal experience, her own disappointing psychological and sexual journey, than about her entirely appropriate critique of the world she is living in. Her motivation ultimately becomes a bit paint-by-numbers, and the various plots of the family cohere in ways that border on the sentimental.
One of the few graces of the end of the movie is that the love stories don’t have sentimental closure. The younger sister will give Joseph Gordon-Levitt a chance, and Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona makes a grand gesture that provisionally returns him to Kat’s good graces, even though college makes their future uncertain.
I can’t help but think that if Allison Janney and Larry Miller each had one more scene that the movie could have deepened its edge more.
10 Things I Hate About You is a virtual time capsule for the late 1990s for its style and music, with just a hint of the Renaissance about it. Mostly, though, it’s a teen rom-com that compares poorly with Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.
While I try to get rid of this cold and catch up on some sleep, here’s a vintage recording I acquired through bootleg trading I did in the 1990s. I hope you like it.
(It’s a secret gift that may or may not involve Hunter S. Thompson in some way.)
The Curator of Schlock #254 by Jeff Shuster
The Sweetest Christmas
Run, run, run as fast as you can.
We’re on week 4 of our Hallmark Christmas extravaganza, a celebration of what one can do with G-rated made-for-TV movies financed by a company that makes its bread and butter off of Christmas Tree ornaments. We will not get an appearance by Santa Claus in this motion picture, in-person or disguised as elementary school janitor. There will be no princes ready to whisk away Lacey Chabert to far off countries that don’t exist in the real world. At least Lacey Chabert plays an aspiring confectionary chef rather than an aspiring fashion designer this time. The name of tonight’s movie is, naturally, The Sweetest Christmas.
fIt’s about a young woman named Kylie Watson (Lacey Chabert) who went to a fancy culinary school and loaded herself up with student loan debt. She moved back to her old hometown to live with her sister and two adorable nieces. Kylie dreams of owning a pastry shop someday. Poor Kylie can’t even get a job as a chef at one of the seven restaurants in her boutique little town. She has to work as a secretary at her boyfriend’s real estate company, Hockey Homes. It sounded like Hockey Holmes. Maybe they spell it Hockee. I could turn on the captions, but maybe you don’t really care. I think you don’t really care.
Kylie ends up breaking up with her boyfriend, Alex (Lane Edwards), after he treats her to a romantic dinner that ends with him asking her to be his office manager rather than become his wife. Things begin looking up for Kylie when she receives a letter that she’s a semi-finalist in a National Gingerbread Baking Contest. Oh boy! Will Kylie be able to pull it off and win the $25,000 grand prize? Will she rekindle the love of an old high school boyfriend who runs the local pizzeria? I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but it wouldn’t a hallmark movie if everything didn’t turn out just peachy. A Merry Christmas to you and yours from Orlando’s Museum of Schlock. See you next week.
I’m under word count, which means I may not get my Christmas bonus from my editor, John King. How did this happen? Maybe because I’ve got nothing left to say. I mean it’s fine if you like Hallmark movies. Just because they recycle the same plot over and over again. Just because we have the same turgid romance with the Ken Doll of week. Hey, you do you.
But if I may, I’d like to pitch my own Hallmark Christmas movie ideas to the bright bulbs over at the Hallmark Channel.
Rather than having Lacey Chabert playing an aspiring gingerbread chef, why not have her just be an office secretary who had a traumatic experience when she was a child. Maybe a psychopath dressed up as a gingerbread man brutally murdered her parents right in front of her when she was four years-old. Maybe she’s repressed the memory until her boss demands she wear the gingerbread man costume at their annual office Christmas party. Shenanigans ensue.
Think it over. Have your people call my people. We’ll do lunch.
Buzzed Books #83 by Drew Barth
Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown
Ever since reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I get excited when I see a family tree at the beginning of a novel. It’s the possibilities a family tree at the beginning signifies: a multi-generational tale so focused on the minutia of family issues and how those ties break. So I got even happier when I saw two family trees at the beginning of Rebekah Frumkin’s The Comedown. But then the balancing of these two family dramas could prove difficultly delicate—we as readers watch the perilous tightrope act before us and hope for the best. And the best is what happens here. Frumkin is adept at weaving us between both families across generations while always keeping our attention on the story at hand.
While the story is concerned with the Bloom-Mittwoch and Marshall families and how one interaction between them would keep the families intertwined for decades, it is the way the story is told that is the most interesting. When I said balance before, I absolutely meant it. This is a novel told in non-chronological order and jumps from character to character, time period to time period, with only two moments of being in one character’s head twice. There’s a few ways here that a reader can end up lost. But Frumkin is a master at this tightrope balancing—each chapter is like its own story with a piece of the larger story’s arc intertwined. The leanness and precision of the prose only helps to reinforce the masterful work on display for we are given crucial story elements precisely when we need them, never a moment too soon or too late. The Comedown builds its tension and drama like Lego: piece by piece until we see every story thread from every character fully realized in an epilogue that could be the start of its own new story.
What makes Frumkin’s structure work so well is how immediately immersed we are once a new chapter begins. We are taken immediately from one character’s head to another and know nearly right away what kind of new character we’re inside. It’s a testament to how well thought out each charter is going into this novel. Even in a third person POV, the voices are always specific to each character. Fifteen characters make up the core cast of this novel, and not a one has a voice that’s quite like any of the others. We can see the precision of thoughts and actions from one character in the 70s to the meandering, profanity-laden thoughts of a different character thirty years later. And at no point do we ever stop and wonder which character we are, so strong are their mannerisms and voices throughout their chapters.
The Comedownis a great many things: family drama, drug-addled revenge, bildungsroman, social critique. But the story always manages to balance every aspect of itself, never once giving us the stomach tightening feeling that we’re about to watch this delicately beautiful house of cards topple over. The Comedown is a novel of trust as well—for the characters and the reader themselves. While the characters battle through their own ability to trust one another, we as readers are asked to trust Frumkin in her prose. We see the perilous heights the story reaches for with bated breath, but we know that through skill Frumkin will dazzle us as the story glides above. Only then at the last page can we exhale and know we’ve seen something marvelous.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.
Pensive Prowler #26 by Dmetri Kakmi
When George Mouratidis asked me to launch his first collection of poetry, Angel Frankenstein, I decided to talk about the cover, rather than the work contained therein.
The jacket speaks volumes. It tells us everything we need to know about the poetry and about the poet. It is a rare instances where a proper study of the cover is essential to an understanding of the work.
Let’s begin with the image. A carnation stuck in a fly-screen door.
Ironic? Kitsch? Nostalgic? Funny?
It’s probably all these things in equal measure.
It’s definitely woggy*. And it’s most certainly recognisable for any Greek who grew up in Melbourne in the 1970s and ‘80s. I look at that image and a part of me smiles, while another part shudders. It brings back memories, some happy, some not so happy. It’s everything I grew up with in Melbourne and everything I wanted to get away from at a young age. I know that’s how George feels as well.
Objectively speaking, the image represents a time and place, frozen in a moment. It evokes a ritual and way of life that is pretty much dead. This is what first-generation Greeks did when they dropped in on friends and relatives—as they did invariably unannounced—and found no one home. They left a flower in the grille of the fly-screen door to signal a visit.
Greek morse code for I came, I saw, you weren’t there.
It wasn’t important to know who left the flower. It was only important to know someone had dropped in for a kafedaki. People did that in those days. Now they text or phone; and this rather sinister love token, as I saw it, has gone the way of the dodo.
So straight away George announces his intentions. He is looking back to his ‘Thommo years’, as he calls his upbringing in Melbourne’s north-west suburbs. But not in a sappy, sentimental way. This is sober, knowing reflection on a working-class Greek-Australian upbringing, its joys, aches and pains.
The image, like the poems, evokes complex subterranean emotions. George isn’t slinging off in a knowing, ironic sort of way. That’s easy to do. Harder still to infuse those times with affection and see them for what they truly were. Much as he chaffed at the bit to get away from Thomastown, George knows this is where he was formed—as a poet and as a human being. He owes a debt to the endless stretch of bland, bleached suburbs. It’s the wellspring of his poetry. Without it he wouldn’t exist. Or he would be someone else, not the George we know.
It’s worth noting that a fly-screen door doesn’t just keep out flies. Locked, it keeps out people as well. You can look but you can’t enter. A locked door says I am barred against you and you can come in by invitation only, like a vampire.
The next best thing to do is draw close and peer through the grille’s intricate, even Byzantine, curlicues into the beyond. This is the heart of Stygian matter.
Like a vampire, a poet may stand at the door, looking in, but he can’t enter. It’s best if he occupies a liminal space—all the better to observe, hover and critique. The door offers resistance against his invasive, often unwelcome, scrutiny. On the other side is a mysterious realm, familiar yet alien. Threatening and welcoming. Like the title above the image, a dichotomy.
And so we come to the extraordinary title. Angel Frankenstein.
What a powerful play on two seemingly contradictory words. Angel and Frankenstein. Light and dark. Placed above the door. Come in. Herein lie monsters and beings of light. Invitation and menace.
An angel is, by definition, good. But the devil is not. He is a fallen angel. Which means an angel can be bad, given the right circumstances. Just as a devil can be good, as Lucifer once was. Or the devil can stray as he tests boundaries and quests for knowledge. To paraphrase Monty Python, he is not really bad; he is just a naughty boy. He doesn’t accept the status quo and therefore falls from grace.
Doctor Victor Frankenstein, as opposed to the monster he creates, is a fallen angel. He was a good man until he cruelly abandons his creation and becomes more monstrous than the benighted man-monster he forms from bits and pieces of cadavers. If anything, by the end of this sorry story, the monstrous creation is more human than the creator. The hell-spawn freak is elevated through forbearance and suffering, while the creator follows a downward spiral through hubris and vanity. Oppositional journeys beginning from the same core. Elevation and descent, cut through with the limbo of a middle-ground.
The point is, nothing is cut and dried. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Life is varied, complex, contradictory and filled with ambiguities and unexpected byways. It takes a questioning and questing mind to see that. As we see with the poems, George has these qualities in spades.
You wouldn’t think to marry Angel and Frankenstein unless you understand nothing in the world is diametrically opposed. There are only parallels, interconnections and corresponding points.
This new creation—the Angel Frankenstein—is ultimately the electrifying synthesis of disparate parts that form a cohesive whole, a shared communal, even pluralistic, space. That’s why the dedication reads ‘for my tribe’.
*a foreigner or an immigrant, especially one from southern Europe.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.
In this week’s episode, I share a conversation I had with author, editor, comic book fan, and book designer Chip Kidd, from about 40 feet away from Biscayne Bay. We spoke about the DC/Marvel divide, the sublime art of Alex Ross, how art springs from our need to see the work we want to enjoy the most, and how so many areas of the book business intersect, if you are paying attention.
The Curator of Schlock #253 by Jeff Shuster
Hallmark’s A Royal Christmas
One of these things is just like the other.
Earlier this year, I partook in the pop cultural sensation known as Crazy Rich Asians from director Jon M. Chu, a story about a commoner from the United States who falls in love with a supremely handsome and charming young man from another country who turns out to be a veritable prince and heir to a vast family fortune. I recently watched 2014’s A Royal Christmas from director Alex Zamm, a story about a commoner from the United States who falls in love with a supremely handsome and charming young man from another country who turns out to be a literal prince and heir to a vast family fortune. Yes, these two movies have the same plot, but one is about Christmas so that’s what we’re covering this week.
This is the second Lacey Chabert Christmas movie I’ve seen where Folger’s coffee could be prominently seen. I don’t want accuse the greeting card company that produced this of shameless product placement, but the first time we see the romantic lead, he’s holding a rather large Wal~Mart bag. Lacey Chabert plays Emily Taylor, the daughter of the town tailor who has dreams of becoming a fashion designer one day. I’m just going to point out that this is the second Hallmark Christmas movie where Lacey Chabert plays a struggling fashion designer.
Emily is seeing the dreamy Leo James (Stephen Hagan), a man who likes to eat pancakes and BLTs, but Mr. Leo James has a secret he’s been keeping from Emily. Mr. Leo James is actually Prince Leopold of Cordinia.
Now many of you may wonder why you’ve never heard of a country named Cordinia. I can answer that for you. Cordinia doesn’t exist. They made up a fake European country for the purposes of the plot. There’s nothing wrong with that. Granted, Crazy Rich Asians treated its audience to the wonders of opulent Singapore, a real country, but we shouldn’t fret over little details like whether or not a country actually exists or not. Leo reveals that he’s a prince to Emily and invites her to spend the holidays with him back home.
It’s in Cordinia that Emily meets Queen Isadora, played by none other than Jane Seymour.
We remember Jane Seymour. She was in that one Battlestar Galactica movie, Battlestar Galactica: The Movie. She was a Bond girl in Live and Let Die. She was also on season four of Smallville, the one where Lana Lang was possessed by the ghost of a dead witch. Ugh. What were they thinking? Clark Kent fights space aliens not witch covens. That season would have been a complete waste if not for the introduction of Erica Durance as Lois Lane, the greatest of all Lois Lanes. I’m talking about Smallville again, aren’t I?
Naturally, Queen Isadora doesn’t approve of her son’s choice in girlfriends. If only Prince Leopold could find another royal to marry instead of tailor’s daughter. She taunts Emily by serving a Cordinian favorite dish of jellied eels, but Emily eats them right up. The palace servants like Emily because she’s a commoner just like them and even Queen Isadora will change her ways and learn the true spirit of Christmas and allow her son to marry Emily. Blah. Blah. Blah. I think Torso is streaming on prime. Smell you later!