Thursday, May 26, 2011

Grasses of a Thousand Colors by Wallace Shawn (2009)

Our lovely friend Ike lent Dr. M a copy of Wallace Shawn's play "Grasses of a Thousand Colors" (2009) recently, and since it was readable and in my house, I decided to read it. I really like Wallace Shawn as an actor, and I enjoyed My Dinner with Andre (which Shawn wrote and costarred in with Andre Gregory, who happened to direct the stage version of "Grasses of a Thousand Colors"), so I was interested to read one of his plays. And I think I liked it! Or rather, I know I liked it, although I'm not always sure why.

In "Grasses of a Thousand Colors," our protagonist, Ben (who was played by Wallace Shawn), is a sexually obsessed scientist who made great breakthroughs in genetic modification of food. He is addressing the audience as the author of a memoir, looking back over his successes and failures, and criss-crossing it all with the females of his life: his wife, Cerise; his lovers Robin and Rose; and one very mysterious white cat named Blanche.

In the end, the play, and Ben's life, come down to two things: eating and sex. Eating is no good anymore because the genetic trick that solved the food crisis by letting animals survive on the dead corpses of other animals has poisoned the food supply and resulted in excessive vomiting, an inability to eat potatoes, and death. Sex is no good anymore because as soon as our hero finds a new woman to satisfy his often-described penis, things change and the sexual relationship drifts apart. In fact, the only consistent lover he has is the beautiful long-haired Blanche, but even she becomes standoffish and bored after Robin cuts her head off.

So you see: it is a confusing play. And it involves a lot of barfing, penis describing, and cat sex. And yet it is extremely enjoyable! There is, as you might expect, a lot of humor hidden in the psychological symbolism of this play, and it is impossible to read it without hearing Shawn's unique voice speaking all of Ben's lines. Three hours might seem a little long for live theatre, but I wish I could have seen Gregory's staging of the play -- I feel like even more of the humor and playfulness would come out in a live performance.

Thanks, Ike!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)

I've always considered myself a science fiction reader and not a fantasy reader. Give me robots, aliens, and dystopian futures -- no dragons, elves, fairies, or magic for me, please! So, much like with the Harry Potter series, it took a huge number of my friends reading and loving A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996) for me to dip my toe into the A Song of Ice and Fire series. And now that I have, I'm lucky that I'm a fast reader, because I can't believe what I've gotten myself into.

But who am I kidding -- I love long novels and after about 100 pages, I was solidly hooked on this one. Of course there is the obligatory map at the beginning of the book guiding us through the imaginary kingdom, and a host of appendices giving family histories, genealogies, and alliances, but don't let that get you down. Martin makes it so easy to love: supernatural elements are just hinted at, or talked about as stories from the distant past; the present is full of violence and sex and political intrigue; and most of the story is more like straightforward adventure than mystical old fantasy.

The basic plot is something like this: Seven formerly independent kingdoms have been ruled over by a single king for three centuries. The first of these kings was a Targaryen, of the House of the Dragon, and his family stayed in power until a rebellion, about a dozen years ago, killed all of them but two exiled children, and put Robert Baratheon on the throne. Robert's best friend and fellow warrior is the Lord of Winterfell, the northernmost kingdom, Eddard Stark, and most of this first book comes to us from the perspective of Eddard, his wife, his two daughters, and three of his sons. When Robert calls Eddard south to rule at court as the Hand of the King, his family is divided and their comfortable (and peaceful) lives in the North are forever changed.

Shit, that makes it sound like a crappy fantasy novel. But I swear it is way more compelling than it sounds! For example, there are super creepy vampire/zombie-type creatures called The Others, extra smart and vicious direwolves, a nice sprinkling of sex, and tons and tons of unexpected death and betrayal. Martin is not afraid to hurt or kill off his characters, even ones that seem essential to the story, and I like that aura of unpredictable tragedy. He also writes an awesome villain.

It is unsurprising that this has been made into an HBO series, and while I haven't seen any of it, I'm sure it looks great. Martin has a way with landscapes and locations that ease the transition from book to film. A few of my favorites:
  • A gigantic ice wall, built up over the centuries, dividing the northernmost kingdom from the untamed land "Beyond the Wall."
  • The road leading to the central camp for a nomadic Eastern people, flanked on both sides with the statues and icons of the people they have conquered.
  • An isolated castle so high on a mountain that no horses can reach it -- you have to crawl up or be hoisted in a bucket. And the dungeon cells aren't underneath -- they line a tower, are missing their outside wall, and have floors that are slightly tilted down towards a fall off the mountain.
Extra thanks to the always excellent John for lending this one to me, and here's hoping that I read the rest of them slowly enough that the series is finished before I catch up with Martin.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Renegade Craft Fair & PGT!

If you are in the Austin area this weekend, don't forget to stop by the Palmer Events center for the 2nd Annual Renegade Craft Fair! And while you are there, I know you won't want to miss the Pretty Good Things booth (booth #44), where me and the fabulous Mary P. will be selling her unique, vintage inspired hats, fascinators and hair do-dads. If you bring us a taco or a cup of coffee or a beer or a smile and some encouragement, you will be rewarded with giant hugs and good karma. Crafts!

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Lexicon Injection

I've decided that the world needs to invent at least three new words.

1. When I check my Twitter or Facebook accounts, I don't scroll down to where I left off the last time and then scroll up to the present. Instead I start with the most recent updates and scroll back into the past until I meet where I ended the last time I checked in. There should be a word for reading about friends / reactions to world events in reverse.

2. The above sometimes leads to occasions where you realize something bad or good happened by the reactions, but you don't find out what it was until you scroll far enough back in time. I think we need a word for that too.

3. When I'm looking through RSS feeds, Facebook posts, and tweets, I always hover over a link before clicking on it and take a look at the full URL. Most of the time you can figure out the title or topic of the article / blog post / whatever is being linked to, and half of the time that is good enough for me and I never click through to read it. There should be a word for reading URLs instead of articles.

Or maybe these words already exist -- you are a smart crowd, can you help me out?

[photo credit]

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger (2011)

The always wonderful LibraryThing Early Reviewers program sent me a copy of the recent English translation of German author Thomas Pletzinger's debut novel, Funeral for a Dog (2011), and since my experience of contemporary German fiction is pretty slight, I'm quite glad they did.

This is the story of two men: Daniel Mandelkern, a budding ABD ethnologist turned journalist for his wife's magazine; and Dirk Svensson, the reclusive author of a hit children's book. Mandelkern gets the assignment to travel to Svensson's isolated lakeside home in Italy, interview the author, and write a 3000 word profile, and after walking out on his wife in the middle of a giant fight and heading to the airport, he is happy to go. When he meets Svensson at the marina he finds himself walking into the middle of a reunion between Svensson, a three legged dog, a young boy, and the beautiful chain-smoking stranger named Tuuli that Mandelkern has been admiring all the way from Germany.

Both Mandelkern and Svensson have their share of regrets, failed romances, and missed opportunities, and Pletzinger reveals their stories to us through alternating sections of Mandelkern's ethnographic notes on his investigations into Svensson's life and his reflections on his own relationships; and the text of Svensson's unpublished (and unfinished) autobiographical novel that tells the story of a three-person (and one dog) romance that travels from Brazil to New York to Italy. Mandelkern is isolated from his own problems and is quickly drawn into the story of his host (who wants Mandelkern to stay, but who doesn't want to answer any questions) and the Finnish woman with the sad eyes. Their tragic romance, and the death and melancholy that haunt the lonely house push Mandelkern to figure out his own desires at the same time that he unravels the mysteries of his companions.

Pletzinger's writing is fresh and engaging, even when the subject matter goes in circles or threatens to drag the reader down. The translation (by Ross Benjamin) is crisp and seems to retain the sometimes experimental tone of the original. Like many novels about men trying to figure out their relationships with women, the female characters in this book are all cool, collected, beautiful, and always say the perfect thing, while the men are flawed, uncertain, and floundering. While this often bothers me, in this case I think the structure and perspective of the book make those characterizations work, and what would ordinarily be a negative turns into a positive. This is an excellent debut novel, and definitely worth a read.