Demons in the Spring

I have sort of a thing about fiction author Joe Meno. Years and years ago, a friend gave me his short story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and I loved it (and much later, after a reread, reviewed it here). On the basis of my liking that book, I more recently read his novel The Great Perhaps, which I liked much less (reviewed here). Meno for me is much like Richard Powers, in that I think there’s a lot of potential there but he fails to live up to it, so far, more than he lives up to it. Having recently read and not much liked Powers’s Gain, I’m on the brink of giving up on him. After reading the first few stories of Meno’s collection Demons in the Spring, I began to fear I had reached the same breaking point with his work. The jury’s still out.

Meno’s short stories are quirky, often outlandish, and I like that. But in this collection, they seem very uneven. Some of the stories seemed half finished and some simply not good. I felt at times as if I was reading unrevised workshop material, and I occasionally thought Meno was doing the cutesy, quirky thing without the literary punch that earns you the right to play such games. These stories I found myself reading hurriedly, just hoping to get to the next (and hoping it would be a better story).

But there were some stories that I liked, some of them very much. As in Bluebirds, Meno writes often of loneliness, of people just trying to peer through the murk of their alienation and make a connection with somebody. Among them, we meet in “Miniature Elephants are Popular” the sad man made happy at last by the possession of a tiny elephant whom, for the sake of helping another person, he drives to a bad end. Here Meno may pull a bit too much of the cutesy-pie business, but ultimately the story redeems it.

In “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl,” we meet a not-terribly-likable couple who endure a tragedy and find a way through it. It’s a rare dip for Meno into something resembling realism, and he does it pretty well. It occurs to me only now that he ends the story in the way certain types of thematically similar movies that make me want to wretch tend to end, but here, with these characters, it seemed a good ending.

“The Architecture of the Moon” is a fanciful piece in which all nighttime light (including that produced by the moon and stars) is extinguished, the city reconfigures itself at random, and people wander around lost at night. The main character of the story speaks with his wandering father on the phone nightly, often trying to guide him homeward. It’s easy enough to read this as a story about Alzheimer’s and a son working to shepherd an afflicted parent through the confusing mess of it all, though it could also just be a fanciful story. There’s a simple tenderness and innocence about it that I found very appealing.

In “The Unabomber and My Brother,” Meno treats us to an unlikely juxtaposition of his burn-out brother and the Unabomber. It’s another story that has a soft, unexpected landing at the end, and I thought the Unabomber tie-in and the way in which Meno handles an emotional finish in a weird emotional-and-yet-still-detached way was pretty nice.

It’s hard to read “Oceanland” without hearing echoes of George Saunders’s various stories about theme parks in which he depicts sorrow among the shabby ruins of tourist destinations designed to — and of course failing horribly to — provide pleasure. Saunders does it better, but I thought this one was ultimately pretty satisfying.

Until I read the last line or two of “Iceland Today,” I wondered what the point was. It’s a funny, fictitious history of Iceland in which we learn all sorts of zany facts. It’s the kind of little sidebar I’d expect to read nestled in almost as a sort of set piece within one of the sorts of sprawling encyclopedic novels I tend to be fond of (as, e.g., a student term paper). But however much I chuckled while reading it, I couldn’t quite figure out why Meno had written the thing or put it in a collection instead of on a blog. He punches you in the gut with the point at the very end of the piece, and I’m ambivalent about how he handled it. This story I regard as a curiosity, neither exactly a failure nor exactly a success.

Meno finishes strong with “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush,” which has sort of a Juno vibe to it. It’s easy enough to envision the main character played on the screen by the ever-baffled, eager-to-please, neurotic screw-up type best given life in recent years (and in Juno) by Michael Cera. This story manages to be both delightful and sort of sad, which I suspect is pretty hard to pull off.

The stories I’ve not commented on here generally left me cold or frustrated.

I made a note at one point that Meno dwells a lot in this collection on architecture and city-planning type topics. We also see action at several art schools, and if ever there was a collection about family members betraying or disappointing one another, this is it (though we do also see the occasional redemption). Of the collection’s title I can make little sense, though the wry dual-meaning (are the demons in the season or in the water?) I suppose is cute. Each story had accompanying illustrations by a different artist (hence, perhaps, the preoccupation with art schools, though the artists Meno portrays are almost all wretched folk), and some portion of the proceeds from sales of the book is being donated to 826Chicago, a branch of the student writing outreach organization Dave Eggers founded.

On the basis of this book, I’m still a little unsure how I feel about Meno’s work. I loved Bluebirds so much that the two things I’ve since read and found at best uneven have left me leery. Maybe he wrote just the one outstanding book. Do I dare risk the disappointment of buying others and confirming that maybe to be true (as, so far, I seem to have done with Powers)?

Moby-Dick on Encore

A few nights ago, I discovered that Encore’s recent two-part mini-series adaptation of Moby-Dick (IMDB page) was available on demand. Starring Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and William Hurt as Ahab with appearances by Donald Sutherland and Gillian Anderson, the show was fairly star-studded and not badly cast at all. I thought Hurt as Ahab was credible, though I think the part was misdirected. I’m not alone in thinking the show portrayed Ahab as rather more like the Buddy Jesus version of Ahab than what die-hard fans of the novel will really be on board with, but I do believe that with better direction and writing, Hurt could have pulled off a great Ahab. Southerland as Father Mapple was a bit of a joke, and the foregrounding (briefly) of Ahab’s wife rubbed me the wrong way, but it was nice to see Scully again. Hawke played Starbuck admirably, and Billy Boyd played a solid Ishmael. Second Mate Stubb I liked, but Flask was neither stout nor rowdy enough for my taste. All in all, I was pleased with the casting and acting.

The plot itself diverged rather drastically from the novel (predictably, I suppose). Steelkilt, who has an important thematic role in the novel but is by no means part of the main story, has a major role in the film. I guess that a movie adaptation of the novel does need someone to step up and speak out against Ahab more vocally than Starbuck is permitted by his station to do, and the introduction of Steelkilt for that purpose is actually fairly ingenius. The purist in me hates the move, but the pragmatist can see why the filmmakers brought Steelkilt to the screen.

The writers screwed rather a lot with the sequence of events in the original. In the film, the white whale attacks when the boats first lower for another whale, and I thought that sapped a lot of suspense from the movie. On the other hand, I suppose the writers felt as if they needed to let us know very early on that Moby-Dick was a real threat. (But doesn’t anybody who’d be inclined to watch such a movie have at least an inkling that there’s a great white whale and a catastrophe?) I don’t object at all to the idea that Moby-Dick might have been lurking about, and in fact I even sort of liked the notion that Ahab and the whale had a real sense of each other’s proximity, but I think the attack should have been put off and the suspense drawn out. Other plot divergences such as the omission of Fedallah and crew struck me as being in good service to the film without detracting from any sense of fidelity to the original.

Ishmael becomes a bit too important in this version of the tale. Ahab confides in him one time, trounces him another, and he’s generally just too present within the story. Of course the novel has a number of problems with point of view, in that it’s a first-person narrative in which many events occur that would not have been accessible by the narrator (e.g. private moments between Ahab and Starbuck). But these are problems of the novel and need not be dealt with by the movie, which naturally has its own omnipresent point of view. I suppose the writers felt a need to make more of a protagonist of Ishmael so that his escape at the end seemed somehow justified by his importance within the rest of the movie, but again the purist in me found it distracting and unnecessary.

Probably my favorite moments in the film occurred once the harpooners had sunk a dart in a whale and were being pulled along behind. Melville describes the peril of such moments in great detail in the novel, and I think this film does the moments justice. It was great fun to watch. I also enjoyed some of the visual depictions of life aboard a whaler — such as cutting up blubber, etc. — and found myself wishing there were more of these moments. I wish we had seen a better representation of the try pots, which Melville describes thoroughly and with great, appropriately hellish effect.

I did enjoy the movie, which had a budget of 25 million bucks and was on the whole a nicely put-together piece (the costumes, the staging, the special effects) as TV movies go. I think it’s a better adaptation than the one of a few years ago starring Patrick Stewart. It’s been long enough since I’ve seen the Gregory Peck version that I can’t really compare the two, but I suspect this version of the story is more vivid and engaging, the former probably truer to the original and a little less silly on the Ahab front. If you’ve got three hours handy and are of a mind to watch a version of the Moby-Dick story that differs significantly from the novel but has plenty of merits of its own, give it a watch. You can read a couple of other reviews here and here.

First Impression of the Kindle

At last I’ve decided to join the modern world and get an electronic reading device. I settled on the Kindle for no terribly compelling reason. A device that supports more open formats might have been wiser, really, since a big part of what I’m interested in is carrying old, public-domain (free) classics with me to catch up on when there’s not something new (expensive) I’m wanting to read.

I’ve played with the thing only a little bit, and my very first impression is that I’m going to have to make some adjustments to how I approach the device. When I glance at web sites on my phone, I’m usually doing very cursory reading, and the temptation to gloss over what I’m reading has carried over to my use of the Kindle so far. In the very wee bit of reading I’ve done (just the first few screens of a couple of sample downloads so far), I’ve been in electronic reading mode and so have been involuntarily skimming. So step 1 of learning to read on the Kindle will be to force myself into an awareness that the books I’m reading on it are in fact real books and not things to be merely skimmed.

More, perhaps, once I’ve had more of a chance to read. For the moment, I’m off to read the real paper book I had begun last night (Lolita, one I’m long overdue for and somewhat dreading).

Fin Back

Last year, I led an online group read of Moby-Dick. While doing so, I happened across the art of Matt Kish, with whom I’ve struck up something of a friendship since. When I met him, Matt was about midway through a project to illustrate every page of Moby-Dick. He was kind enough to contribute some articles for the group read, and in February, he finished his ambitious project, which is now being collected in an art book. I was lucky enough to be the first to purchase one of the original pieces from the project (though several other illustrations that didn’t make the final cut have also been sold, and I’ve bought one of those too).

It’s a really gorgeous piece, vibrantly colored and drawn on an old TV schematic. The drawing has hundreds of tiny precision lines and dots that aren’t nearly as impressive in the crummy phone snapshot below as they are in person.

Although there are lots of fantastic pieces in the collection, this one is of particular significance to me because I decided last June to get a tattoo adaptation of it. Naturally, I got Matt’s permission first, and he was really pleased with the outcome. I am too. (As with the original art, the photo below really doesn’t do the piece justice.)

Fin Back Tattoo

When Mleeka and I talked about my getting a tattoo, she had envisioned something much smaller than what I wound up with. For that matter, so had I, but it was hard to translate the stencil the tattoo artist showed me into a size relative to my back, which for understandable reasons I have only a tenuous understanding of the size and geography of. She was upset when I came home with a bandage covering the better part of my not-small upper back. I think it’s grown on her since, and although I didn’t mean to get one quite so large, I love that it’s as big as it is.

The tattoo artist had to change the sizing on a lot of elements to translate the original piece into a tattoo, and I think that by and large, he did a great job. Some of the crookedness manifest in the snapshot above is the result of my back’s contours and not of an unsteady hand on the tattoo artist’s part. I wish he had colors matching the originals a little more closely, I’ll say.

Since the moment I got the thing, I’ve wanted another (maybe even another Kish piece), but I’m told I’m disallowed from doing so, at least for a few years.

I’m glad now to have the original artwork in hand as a companion to my inked knock-off.