Sunday, April 26, 2015

So Big

I first became aware of this book through various Looney Toon cartoons where it would figure as some kind of corny sight gag. It made me wonder what a book called "So Big" could be about. Then, a couple years ago, I listened to this TMBG song, which made me wonder why I didn't know anything about Edna Ferber. Then I realized she wrote Show Boat, which has always been one of my favorite musicals / movies, due to my fascination with Captain Andy. And then I found a cool six volume collection of her novels printed in the 1920's in excellent condition at Half Price Books. I think it was mis-marked... I think they were supposed to be $20 each, and instead, the whole set seemed to be marked $20. The clerk seemed to agree that this was an error, but there was no way to be sure, so she just let me have it. And the first novel in the set of six (they are ordered chronologically) is So Big.

I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly did enjoy it. It is a tale of a woman who moves from the city to become a farm wife, and "So Big" is the nickname she gives to her little boy. I am learning that children raised in difficult circumstances is a bit of a hallmark for Edna Ferber. So Big is very much about a woman trying to make it in a man's world, in this case, the man's world of running a farm, and selling what you grow in order to survive. The city to country motif has something in common with Main Street, but So Big is much more hopeful. It manages to combine the worlds of farming and art together, showing that they aren't as different as one might think.

What really won me over was chapter eight, which gets into the gory details of what it was really like to cart your crops to the big city, and fight for a space to sell them. From these details, it rises to something perfect, beautiful and unexpected. I would transcribe it, but to just see the words without experiencing the entire trajectory, well, it will just seem corny. In any case, that chapter won me over to Edna Ferber. She is excellent at bringing an intellectual and philosophical point of view to the most mundane activities -- and, of course, getting a window into the realities of nineteenth century life is always interesting to me. It's very easy for me to understand how this book managed to become a household name, and I'm glad that, for me, it has become more than a cartoon punchline.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


I know I'm late writing about this, but I thought I would finally get around to it. It's fascinating that this movie is as popular as it is. I'm not sure I understand why, exactly. The fantasy of ice magic is fun, and there are a lot of exciting and funny moments, and then on top of that it has a very interesting message. It doesn't exactly follow the mold of a normal fairy tale, but then again, it does. What I find most interesting is that everyone I talk to seems to have a different way of expressing what the movie is really about. So, here's my take on the theme of the film: We all have terrible things inside us. Repressing them is ultimately impossible. Letting them out, especially after they are bottled up, leads to disaster. However, tempering them with love can be peaceful, beautiful, and powerful. An unusual message for a fairy tale! That's my interpretation, anyway. It's a sign of a powerful story that many people find many different meanings in it. Oh, and Josh Gad was really funny, and Kristen Bell's performance was excellent and overlooked.

Friday, April 24, 2015


A new TMBG album is always cause for celebration! And this one is really solid and fun. My three favorite tracks, I think, are Erase, Answer, and Aaa. For reasons I can't explain, I'm excited for the vinyl version to come out. Leading up to the release, they were emailing out links to the songs every couple days. I thought it would spoil things, but I think it really built up an appetite for the album. The future is weird and complicated. But it has lots of good music, nonetheless.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Every aspect of everything in my life is about magic. The study, exploration, and application of magic is the primary driver for everything I do. So this book caught my interest. I didn't expect much, I was thinking it would be something like a dark Harry Potter for grown ups, but this was something different. And what makes it different is its unusual approach to the nature of magic. In the story, practical magic has been largely forgotten, replaced with an ivory tower study of the theory of magic. Much of the story is about the exploration of this difference, which to me felt charged with a sort of symbolism. The most vivid parts of this fascinating book involve the descriptions of how magic actually takes place. The part that makes no sense is that it would seem that just about anyone in the story world with an inclination would be able to do some very useful magic... but as it goes, in stories, that just doesn't happen. The dark world of the faeries, and the dark side of using magic are what really keep the story going, and make it truly interesting. I really enjoyed this long book, from beginning to end. A filmed version is in production -- it is hard for me to imagine it will be captured properly, but you never know... sometimes, magic can surprise you.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Banshee Chapter

I got to see this film in McConomy Auditorium at CMU as part of Spring Carnival, and afterwards I had the privilege of hosting a Q&A session with the director (Blair Erickson) and producer (Corey Moosa). It's a fun horror movie with a lot of jump-scare moments, very much inspired by the 1986 horror film From Beyond which is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. I like any movie that mentions the pineal gland, and I'm always fascinated by films of Lovecraft stories. The film brings the pineal gland up to date by having it activated not by a electronic tuning fork, but rather by a variant on the psychotropic drug DMT. Interestingly, this film will have a place in history, as it is one of the first films converted to VR. It is available on Mac for the Oculus Rift. I haven't tried that, but I understand that the scary moments are very scary, but the handheld camera scenes can be a little hard to take, "motion discomfort"-wise. Talking to Blair and his team, they are pursuing the dream of VR movies -- I was quite pleased to learn that they had taken Building Virtual Worlds with Randy Pausch back in its early days -- they were surprised to learn that I teach it now! It will be quite interesting to see what they come up with next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


I've always liked Carl Reiner. Who doesn't? I got to know him as Alan Brady, and learning that he was the real writer of the Dick Van Dyke show, in other words, the real Dick Van Dyke, playing his own boss, well, always made him kind of a surreal and awesome figure. And, well, the 2000 year old man. And the way he and Mel Brooks hang out every day.  And he broke me up on TV once when I was a kid, on the Dinah Shore show, or something like it, with his impersonation of the radio singer who couldn't make it on TV because of the weird faces he made when he sang. And he's Rob Reiner's dad! Anyway, I was intrigued to find this peculiarly titled novel read by the author. Turns out, well, I can't say it's a great novel. It's kind of goofy and stupid, really, and didn't enjoy a lot of editing. It centers around a novelist who talks to himself, who is writing a new telling of Genesis. In the interview at the end, Reiner admits he started trying to write Genesis himself, found it was hard, and instead started writing this story around that. He also admits he didn't plot it much, he mostly let the novel unfold, and that kind of shows, too, as some storylines just kind of go dead. The strongest parts for me were the internal (or, not so internal) monologues of the protagonist, but at the story resolves itself, those gradually disappear.

But judging this as a novel is probably wrong. Better to judge it as a visit from a friend. Having Carl Reiner come by and read this silly story aloud was tremendous fun, and it made me feel closer to him, like I know him a little better. He's 93 now, and wrote this when he was 84. I hope I can be creating such silly, fun things when I'm 84!

Monday, April 13, 2015

All The Names

I got to see this remarkable production by Pittsburgh's Quantum Theater. Based on the book by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago (it is one of my goals to read a book by every Nobel literature winner -- I guess this counts for half credit), this play takes place in several rooms of the "Original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny", also known as the abandoned, decrepit half of the Hazlett Theater that was a police station for a little while. However, an ancient library that still has scars of being hastily converted into a police station which was then abandoned makes a perfect setting for this fascinating, Kafkaesque story. (spoilers ahead.) It is a story about a clerk in a dehumanizing institution who becomes obsessed with the identity of a person whose file card he pulls from a file by mistake. We follow him about his covert investigations, while we literally follow him through this weird old building. The performances were excellent, and fascinating -- there are a number of scenes where one character is played by two actors simultaneously, to captivating effect. There is some good use of projection to enhance performance, though honestly, I would have liked to see either more, or less of that. Every single one of the actors was fascinating in their own way, and that, plus an unusual and surreal Borges/Kafka story, plus a lot of interesting theatrical gimmicks was more than enough to keep me interested. I'd quite like to see it again, if I can. My favorite part about these performances designed around a space is their ephemeral nature -- so, if you are interested, see it while you can. I know I'm interested enough to read the book. Also -- it has Mark Conway Thompson, who used to be in Mummenschanz. Also also, live sheep. What more do you need? Stefon would love it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

On Heroes and Hero Worship

I'd never read any Thomas Carlyle before, but something drew me to this weird little volume. It is basically his transcription of a six-day lecture series he gave in 1840. Carlyle is fascinating. In some ways, he's clearly a quiet, bookish person... but when he really gets going, his chains of emotional logic become long and powerful. He has a power similar to Emerson, but unlike Emerson, who jumps around from idea to idea, Carlyle slowly builds to his points, and his points are powerful! The essays are an examination of different heroes throughout history. He starts with Divine Heroes, like Odin, then moves to Prophet Heroes, like Mohammad, then Poet Heroes like Dante and Shakespeare, then Priest Heroes, Scholar Heroes, and finally, Kings as heroes. His main conclusion is that we desperately need heroes in our lives. Near the end, he seems to believe that heroes and kings are basically the same thing -- kings that are not heroic are false kings, and heroes that have no kingly power are unnatural. At first this seemed a little silly to me -- but there is something very important about great men and women. We are moved by their greatness, and we want to serve them, we want them to lead us. It makes you look at things differently, when you consider every leader as a king or queen -- it gives a certain clarity, and in some ways, it gives the proper measure of responsibility to leaders.

I also got to know Carlyle a little bit, and I must admit I feel a certain kinship to him. I feel like he plans his talks a bit like I do -- working out a chain of logic that would sound crazy in a conversation, but in a lecture can work, as you gradually weave up a spell of logic around you, and bit by bit transport your audience to someplace they never imagined existed. It is what I try to do in my talks, and I could feel Carlyle doing it to me.

In short, I learned a lot of history from this little book, and I find myself now having a clearer idea about what heroism really means... that true heroes are not the ones who performed a single heroic deed, but rather the ones who have devoted their life to a cause, not caring if anyone follows them. Who else could be worth following?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Watership Down

I grew up watching the movie of Watership Down on HBO, over and over again. I was always moved by how serious and scary it was -- not like any animated film I'd seen. Roddy McDowall's performance as Fiver still haunts me. But people always sniffed, "The movie is nothing like the book -- the book is SO much better." So, finally, I got around to reading it. Or rather, listening to the audiobook, superbly performed by Ralph Cosham. And, you know what? It's really not that different than the movie. Oh, certainly, it's deeper, and there is more of it, but looking at it now, I'm amazed that the movie was able to capture as much of the tone and nature of the book as it did.

It's interesting to think about what makes Watership Down such a unique book. There are lots of books about animal worlds... but there is something very different about Watership. It's partly that the book is trying in no way to be a fantasy. It tries very, very hard to be a real story about real rabbits. Adams explains how he read several books about the lives of rabbits, so that he could capture the details of what they really do. But then, of course, it is a fantasy. The rabbits end up doing things that rabbits would never do. In essence, it is a book about "What does it mean to be a rabbit?" And the only way to explore that is to have the rabbits explore the boundary between rabbit-like behavior and human-like behavior. Because, ultimately, by having the positive space of the book be what it means to be a rabbit, the negative space becomes an exploration of what it means to be human. And so, this interesting fable becomes something much deeper. Not a heavy handed parable, like Animal Farm, but rather an exploration of rabbit and human nature that asks more questions than it answers.

A side note: one thing the movie doesn't really do is to explore the "rabbit language." Adams uses a lot of "rabbit words" which is a literary technique that mishandled can seem affected and make the dialog ridiculous. But he handles it artfully, and the small number of special rabbit-language words that are used help the reader feel part of the rabbit world.

One more side note: Ralph Cosham's performance is very, very good. There is a lot of multi-rabbit dialog, and his mastery of subtle changes of voice made it a deep and emotional experience -- it is one of those audiobooks that elevates the form by being arguably a better experience than simply reading the text ever could be.

Final final side note: One day I'm going to look at the final battle in both the Watership Down movie, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off side-by-side. I'm pretty sure they are shot for shot identical.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Song of the Sea

Do you like selkies? Magic? Celtic stuff? Beautiful animation? Then you'll probably want to check out Song of the Sea. It is hard not to stare in amazement the whole film at how beautiful everything is. It's a great story for kids, but it is also mysterious and dark enough to be interesting to adults. We live in an amazing age when a an animated film this wonderful doesn't really get noticed because the world is already full of beautiful things. But seriously, don't go see "Home" or whatever this week's farting alien movie is... watch this instead.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Settlers of Catan

I've been meaning to write about Catan for what seems like forever. Is it an excellent game? Yes. Clever, replayable, well-balanced, simple? Yes. Do I like it? No. No, I really don't. I try to like it, I really do. But I just don't care for it. One problem -- I can never remember the rules. Every time I play is like the first time. I find the rules so weird and counterintuitive (oh yeah, villages have to be two spaces away from other villages... oh yeah, longest road is important... oh yeah, there are two phases of play) that I can never remember them. You know, maybe that's my biggest gripe with Catan. It is a very thoughtfully designed abstract game that is pretending to be a simulation of something. But it is no more a realistic simulation of land ownership than Monopoly is, and at least Monopoly has the decency to print the weirder rules on the board and cards. And the other thing I don't like -- I really don't care for games that are about repeatedly stabbing each other in the back and ruining each other's plans. In some games, ill-effects come at random. In Catan, most ill-effects are intentional, and often cruel.

I'm not saying it is a bad game. If you like well-designed abstract strategy games with a thin veneer of simulation and cutthroat gameplay, it's an excellent choice. I marvel at the elegance of the mechanics every time I play it. Personally, though, I prefer less backstabbing and more simulation in my games. Sometime soon I'll write about The New Science, which is exactly my cup of tea.

Maybe I'd like it more if I could remember the rules? But that would mean playing it more often, and... yeah, I never quite feel like it.

One Man's Way

This is a 1960's biopic about Norman Vincent Peale. It stars Don Murray as Peale, and he does a great job as a movie screen minister. I'm always interested in stories about charismatic speakers who are trying to balance showmanship and meaning -- and this is certainly one of those. I can't say I found it hugely inspiring, but it certainly asks some good questions, and it makes me wonder about maybe finally getting around to reading The Power of Positive Thinking. Also, look for Gerald Gordon (aka Nick Bellini from "The Doctors" ... I'm hooked on that right now), and Ann Morgan Guilbert (Millie from the Dick van Dyke show). How, exactly, faith should best be a part of our lives is something each of us has the pleasure and privilege to wrestle with.