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Archive: July 2004

My spidey-sense is not so great.

Like just about everyone else, I’ve seen Spider-Man 2, but since everybody else has already taken the opportunity to comment, I’m not sure what to say. Well, maybe I am: Peter trying to use “The Song of Hiawatha” as a seduction tool may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Ok, not ever, but I was amazed and giggly for a good while afterward. But most of the things that struck me were absences rather than actual scenes.

Maybe it’s because the script went through so many authors’ revisions that it just didn’t mesh well or maybe there’s a lot more that will be in the DVD’s deleted scenes or maybe it’s because everyone knows there will be a sequel that no one bothered to tie up any non-MJ plot, but I found all of that somehow disappointing. There were plenty of campy scenes I expected and while they might have annoyed me had they arrived, I missed them when they didn’t.

Where was the bang/whimper joke when Doc Ock rejoins (or doesn’t, depending on his/your view of any afterlife) his beloved wife? If it wasn’t setup for a bang/whimper joke, why was there so much talk about T.S. Eliot?? (As an aside, I still think his last words, “I will not die a monster,” leave open the possibility for his return, because it’s quite possible that he won’t die, not that he won’t be a monster any longer.)

What, did Peter somehow magically pay the rent while not having a job but doing better in school? All of a sudden his previously obsessed landlord stopped asking for it. And why, when Mary Jane escaped her own wedding and ran dramatically to Peter’s doorstep, did the landlord not spoil the moment by accosting her and demanding Peter pay him? Or, worse, why didn’t he send his besotted daughter in to coerce Peter to pay and get her heart broken in the process? I don’t know; they just disappeared.

And Aunt May makes her huge speech and then disappears to her new apartment, which is maybe a good thing since while her husband gets to return from the dead, his comeback is far from a highlight. I’d say that deus ex machina runs in the family except that I’d have to assume they’re not blood relations. Maybe it’s why they were so well-matched?

And then there are general quibbles. Why does the generically Slavic landlord have a daughter named Ursula? (Yes, name issues always bother me, as I’ve said here previously. If you’re going to bother to give your characters some kind of ethnic identity, it’s really not hard to follow through. I swear. It’s easy, and it makes you look bad if you don’t bother, even if only to me.) And how did Peter and MJ and Harry all end up at the same high school anyway, since they’re not from similar economic backgrounds and they wouldn’t exactly belong at an academic magnet school or anything like that? And while I’ve complained, too, about the inappropriately high-stakes danger plots in comics-to-movie adaptations, it seemed a bit odd that having more than the power of the sun causing problems in New York twice wouldn’t generate much attention at all. All part of the superpower-heavy world, I guess.

And all this makes it sound like I didn’t like the movie, which isn’t the case at all. It was enjoyable, though uneven (and outright annoying when heavy-handed) and I had fun and would have had fun even if there hadn’t been Longfellow jokes. I would have liked it even if it hadn’t had a particularly goofy and tacky rendition of The Importance of Being Earnest. I liked the way Peter has trouble finding a balance between power and responsibility, particularly in the way he dealt with both in relation to the people he cares about most. And now that MJ has crossed his boss and complicated his life, what next? Will he be able to manage normalcy, when it’s the normal day-to-day life that has been draining him so far? What will MJ’s third wet-tshirt scene look like, and will she ever realize that Spider-Man’s girlfriend is better off choosing pants over skirts? I have no idea, but I have no doubt I’ll be willing to find out when the time comes.

Google’s recruiting strategies

Google’s recruiting strategies: Want to be an engineer for Google? Go to http://{first 10-digit prime number found in consecutive digits of c}.com.

13 July 2004 by Steven | Permalink | Comments disabled

My End of the Shelf

So Steven has filled an imaginary bookshelf, but I assume there’s still a bit of room at the end for me to toss in a few titles. And the bookshelf can remain imaginary, becuase the plan when books are unpacked completely is (I think) to stick with alphabetical order, rather than any kind of idiosyncratic personal-resonance filing system. But here are the books that have been core for me, leaving out all the ones Steven already tackled. In thinking of “me” I tend to start counting at around age 11, so I doubt anything older than that will show up on the list. I’m sure I was basically the same person, but 11 was a core year for descent into self-doubt and fury, and so it always seems like a good turning point.

David Fiore got to it first, Robert Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary and How They Grew deserves a prime spot as the first book I remember making me laugh aloud. (The story in question was “Talking Dogs,” which I still find funnier than it probably is.)

For the same reason I Capture the Castle would be there, except that every time I buy a copy I give it as a gift. Luckily this is an imaginary shelf, though, so the only Dodie Smith book I’ve ever read (and I’d gladly read her diaries but plan to keep avoiding 101 Dalmations) gets a spot for its incredible voice and consistency and just plain fun.

Notes from Underground was my version of The Catcher in the Rye, a book that seemed to incorporate all of the idealism and agony of my adolescent experiences into one slim volume in a way that made pure sense to me at the time. Fyodor Dostoyevsky probably deserves more spots on the list, but this is the clearest winner.

Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch is probably my favorite collection of retold fairy tales, but she hit my life first and hardest with Stir-Fry. I used to have a little piece of paper (maybe still do) with all the quotes I found meaningful scribbled all over it with page numbers. I have not reread it as an adult, since it’s the only of her books I’ve never found in a used book store, but I’ll go back to it someday, when its meaning will be a bit different.

For maybe five years afterwards from high school into my early college years, I had an answer when someone would ask what my favorite book was, though the answer changed. I went from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I don’t think I ever gave the last as an answer, because when I figured it could supplant The Satanic Verses I decided I might as well give up on that listed favorites thing.

For poetry, I need Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and probably her Sappho translations, too, with the lovely facing Greek. I’m not sure yet what else, as I’ve been gone from poetry for so long. Some Zbigniew Herbert, certainly. I have a collection of poems I love by Forough Faroughzhad, but can’t think of the title right now; it was salvaged from a trash can when a professor was unloading unwanted books. Jorie Graham. Marge Piercy, maybe Early Grrl.

Perhaps I like short stories best, but for now I’ll leave them off my list for now. It’s getting long enough. And no non-fiction, either, reference books and Montse Stanley’s guide to knitting and lots of histories and biographies and anthropology and criticism! This is why I can’t have a shelf, because I wouldn’t know where to stop until I had practically all the shelves I have anyway. But since I don’t feel a deep need to have all my meaningful texts nearby to harness their talismanic power or anything like that, it’s fine that the shelf is imaginary.

The Bookshelf

I don’t have a special shelf for my favorite books—not even an imaginary one, because I lack whatever psychological trait that allows people to easily create hierarchical categories of the things they like. I have books I especially love, but I never know where to draw the line between “favorite” and “not quite.” But Rick Geerling created a meme, list the books on your special shelf of favorite books, which has been spreading through the blogosphere (Ken Lowery, David Fiore, Dave Intermittent). I suppose I’ve caught the meme as well.

On David Fiore’s comments thread, Jess Nevins notes that the problem with this meme is that “The Bookshelf” (as Rick calls it) is going to end up with hundreds of books on it. Actually, I think it’ll probably end up with too many or too few, depending on whether your listing is governed by an obsessive completism or a reticent hesitance to include every book you know you really should. To save both you and me some time and boredom, I’ll choose the latter governor.

Before I start my list of favorite(ish) books, though, I want to note something I’ve just noticed. Many of the ones I’ve chosen are about what Rose calls “creation of self through narrative” and David Fiore calls “identiy-formation through narrative-building.” These are narratives that literalize narrative: the characters in these stories usually know or figure out they’re in a story. Sometimes they get to meet the Author. I think if we humans were offered a little discussion time with God—not just your standard prayer or divine visions but a meeting in which you could get some real answers—most of us would eagerly accept the offer. Even those of us who don’t believe in Him would, I think—wouldn’t you like to know what God would have to say about all those clever arguments atheists have come up with to “disprove” Her existence? I know I would. Can God create a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?

Why is there suffering? Why didn’t you ever answer my prayers—is it just because I didn’t believe in you? If you had a chance to get not just the answers but The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything—well, who wouldn’t be tempted by that? We have all these questions we’d love to ask God, but She doesn’t answer (if God exists then He seems to have been out to lunch for the last few million years, and I never trust people who have a personal relationship with Jesus). The only place we can get God to answer our questions is in our fantasies, that place where we’re more powerful than God and get to tell Her what to do. I think that’s why there are so many stories about meeting God. But then, God (creator of the Wor[l]d) and an author (creator of words) have a lot in common, don’t they? J.R.R. Tolkien discusses writing, especially of fantastic stories, as a reverent imitation of God’s creation of the world in his essay “On Faerie Stories.” In Animal Man, Grant Morrison and God are the same.

My Bookshelf (for now) consists (largely, but not at all entirely) of fiction texts that take on these intersections of text, authorship, and humanity’s own search for cosmological answers.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick

The dangerous thing about finding God and asking your questions is, of course, what if God won’t answer? Or can’t answer? What if He answers but the answers make even less sense than your own feeble guesses? What if the only useful thing you got out of your meeting with God was a reminder of the idea of free will—and you couldn’t even get God to tell you whether you actually have free will or if it’s just a comforting fiction you invented yourself? Are you even capable of dealing with the responsibility for your own stupid mistakes and fucked-up life, the liberating and terrifying fine-print clause in the free-will contract? (And why didn’t God ever ask if you wanted to sign that contract?)

(In other words, what if you were human?)

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

The fantasy epic about a gunslinger straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, on a quest for The Answer, which lies at the highest level of the Dark Tower—or does it lie in the home of the young writer of Salem’s Lot? King thinks the opening sentence of The Gunslinger, the first book of his Dark Tower series, may be the best opener he’s written in his career: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I like the next sentence even more: “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” It’s the “parsecs” that makes it great—any writer with the audacity to put “parsecs” in the second sentence of a book like The Gunslinger, and the skill to actually pull it off without sounding like a jerk, is a writer worth reading. (In the recent and ill-conceived revised edition of The Gunslinger, King foolishly replaced “parsecs” with some safer and forgettable word. Too bad for him.)

Vurt, Jeff Noon

Labyrinths are almost as important a theme in this genre as the quest for God, labyrinths as a metaphor of the text. The goal at the center of the textual labyrinth is meaning… but there’s a nasty structural ‘flaw’ in the labyrinth: there is no center! There is no one perfect interpretation of any text—even the simplest of texts may have several plausible interpretations. (This is not to say all interpretations of a text are equally plausible—the lack of one correct interpretation is not the same as the lack of any wrong one.) And don’t fall for the intentional fallacy—a statement of the author’s intended meaning may look like a map to the center of the text, but it’s only another textual labyrinth. What do you do with a centerless labyrinth (the only escape is not to read)? Why not be a writer yourself, a creator of labyrinths?

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

In some shelf of some hexagon [of the Library], men reasoned, there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has perused it, and it is analagous to a god. …I pray the unknown gods that some man—even if only one man, and though it have been thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. …May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.
— “The Library of Babel”

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
— “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

More books…

And now, since this is going to be ridiculously long and time-consuming if I keep writing so much about each book, I’ll list the rest of the books with no more than one or two explanatory sentences each…

  • If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino. The book is narrated in the second person, so you the reader become the protagonist as well.
  • The Invisibles, Animal Man, The Filth; Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of few comics creators I’ve encountered in my short career as a comics reader who gets into these metatextual themes (and, more importantly, deals with them intelligently) (I have no doubt there are plenty of other comics creators who do as well, but I’ve not yet discovered many of them).
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco. I read an essay by John Updike in which he claims Foucault’s Pendulum shows what might have resulted if Borges had attempted to write a novel. He may be right about that, but his belief that it’s a flaw in Foucault’s Pendulum probably shows why I don’t waste my time reading Updike.

For this next book I’m afraid I need to go back to a longer format:

Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson

In this book, Craig Thompson emerges as a young comics master: In the purest narrative form he tells a highly charged personal story, crammed with pain, discovery, hijinx, penance, religious conviction and its loss… and along comes self loathing. In this story of family and first love, that which goes awry in life, goes well as art. Mr. Thompson is slyly self-effacing as he bowls us over with his mix of skills. His expert blending of words and pictures and resonant silences makes for a transcendent kind of story-telling that grabs you as you read it and stays with you after you put it down. I’d call that literature.
Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is writing about Thompson’s Blankets, but he could just about be writing about Good-Bye Chunky Rice. The funny thing is, what he writes makes a lot more sense if you pretend he is writing about the latter rather than the disappointing (and generally redundant, after Good-Bye Chunky Rice) Blankets.

Even more books…

This is getting way too long. OK, here’s the rest of my list:

  • Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition; William Gibson
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, et al.; Philip K. Dick. If I kept going I might end up listing every one I’ve read. Dick’s books are often incoherent and clumsily written, but no other writer inspires quite the same fascinating effect of simultaneous desire to throw a book across the room and unwillingness to stop reading long enough to throw it.
  • Robert Howard’s Conan stories
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I guess that’s it. For now!