Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thoughts on Thrift Stores

In a way, thrift stores and secondhand shops are like museums of our collective failure to measure up against our own hopes and dreams; or of our failure to accurately predict what our hopes and dreams would be in the future. They collect the detritus of things we wanted, or thought we wanted, or others assumed we wanted: cheese knives and exercise equipment, ships in bottles and books on personal finance, cookbooks full of recipes ranging from faddish diets to diabetes-inducing confectionery. Tupperware sorted by color and shape, hand-painted porcelain Hummel figurines and row upon row upon row upon row of wine glasses. Aunt Mildred's fine china that we could never be bothered to wash by hand one the one night a year we would actually use it; good china that never got used at all; ugly, mismatched porcelain bowls we always hated but we were in college and poor and they worked alright so we couldn't just throw them away and buy new ones until after we graduated and could finally chuck the hideous things. Racks upon racks of t-shirts commemorating everything from the track teams of unfamiliar universities to cancer-walks. Jeans that we will never, ever fit into again no matter how hard we diet. Small forests of garish silk neckties, patterned to complement suit jackets which haven't been fashionable for twenty years. Eighty prints of the same T-shirt, donated by the local silkscreen shop due to a small-but-vital miscommunication with the client about what the shirts should actually say. Three dozen copies of a local rapper's debut album, each with liner notes hand-packed by his friends and family.

Friday, May 6, 2016

An Old Favorite


The first thing I did upon waking this morning was pick up my recently-purchased copy of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and eagerly consume the remainder of the book, which I had read last night until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

I was in sixth grade when I first encountered this book in the school library. I changed school districts just after finishing the book, and the new school didn't have the other books in the series, so it gradually fell by the wayside and was forgotten. Until recently, when I saw a copy at the Dawn Treader and remembered really enjoying it the first time around. I'm really glad I bought it when I had the chance, because this book has reminded me of why I fell in love with fantasy in the first place, and its stunning power to enrich our lives with fresh perspective.

I think I may have been too young to really appreciate this book the first time around, because there's a lot going on here that I didn't notice the first time around. I must have completely failed to realize that Ged (a.k.a. Sparrowhawk, the main character) is not a white guy like virtually all fantasy protagonists (his skin tone is described as "red-brown"). I also failed to realize what a big deal that is, especially for a book published in 1968, when (as Le Guin herself said it) "everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill."

Sparrowhawk by FreShPAiNt

I also feel like I'm finally old enough to really understand and absorb the lessons which the book teaches about patience, self-knowledge, and the responsibility which comes with great power (I just wish I had taken these lessons more to heart as a young man, rather than insisting on learning them for myself, the hard way). As the Archmage says to Ged after the young man's pride and hubris have left him gravely injured and loosed a terrible evil upon the world:
You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do....
I was also captivated by the lovingly-rendered descriptions of sea and surf and sky, of windswept moors and mist-hidden isles, narrow flotsam-choked inlets, great calm bays, and the endless, heaving waterscape of the Open Sea. Le Guin has an anthropologist's eye for culture and and a naturalist's eye for setting, and it makes me appreciate my own landscape (and the lake right behind my new house) all the more fully.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, 2005)

It's not often that I wish a thousand-page novel could have been even longer. Rarer still is when I finish such a novel and immediately turn back to page one so I can start it over again. But that is exactly what I did with Susanna Clarke's masterful, eloquent, and exquisitely-constructed novel. By turns humorous and eerie, quotidian and otherworldly, Strange is already high on my list of all-time favorite books.

While no summary could really do justice to a novel of this size and complexity, here's a rundown: Magic has been dead in England for close to three centuries -- ever since the mysterious Raven King rode out of England and into Faerie -- until the secretive and reclusive Mr Gilbert Norrell resurrects the craft and becomes a celebrity overnight. Soon, one Jonathan Strange appears on the scene: a young gentleman with an intuitive gift for magic. Handsome, gregarious, and bold, Strange is everything Norrell is not. Together, they form an unlikely master-apprentice duo, and pool their considerable magical resources to aid England in its war against the dreaded Emperor Napoleon. But the friendship men so different as these cannot last forever: Norrell hoards information like a miser hoards gold, and Strange is drawn ever more strongly towards the mad, wild sorcery of the Raven King, widening the rift between teacher and pupil.

It's hard to know where to begin reviewing a work of this magnitude, but I suppose the most logical place to begin is the book's language, which is a pastiche of Georgian literary English (imagine a blend of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, with a perhaps a splash of Charles Dickens). That might sound like it would be impenetrable, but the modern reader will have no difficulty there. As a matter of fact, it's much easier to read and understand than even Jane Austen, whose language was (in my opinion) uncommonly straightforward for her era. The peculiar spelling of some words ("chuse" instead of "choose," for instance) only adds to the impression that we are reading an actual document of the period, being written by someone who speaks the same language as the characters depicted.

Clarke makes use of numerous and often lengthy footnotes to give the novel a tone of mock-scholarship, by explaining the characters' references to historical events and magical theory without having them awkwardly explain things to each other for the reader's benefit. Apparently she initially considered making this an epistolary novel, and although she scrapped that plan, the footnotes became the perfect way for her to explore the medieval history of her world without compromising its narrative flow.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 6

Portia Rosenberg's ghostly-grey illustrations lend the novel an atmosphere of gloomy magnificence. They bleed away from the gray illustration to a smoky nothingness, lacking a clear boundary, giving the impression that there is much more to this world which we only glimpse through a glass darkly.

Clarke does an excellent job of giving historical context to those who may not be great students of history, but as an American I found that there were many references to real historical events which I had heard of but, not knowing how they ultimately turned out, I was left unsure whether anything had been altered by the magicians' presence.

Oddly, it seems that even the presence of spectacular magic would change very little about the course of history. Even with two magicians and their scrying-dishes working full time on the war effort, Napoleon is continually outsmarting Britain's generals. It seems to me that, even if the gentleman's code of conduct prevents them from actually killing anyone, it should have been possible for them to cause some great personal tragedy to befall him, such as gout or an attack of hayfever.

But all of this is just nitpicking. Perhaps by making her alternate, magical history so similar to our own, Clarke is trying to show us that history has a vast momentum of its own, and that the presence of one or two men (even magicians) is not enough to entirely alter the course of history. Or maybe she's saying that our own history is just as magical and strange as this simulacrum she's created? Either way, Clarke's attention to historical detail is astonishing. Her inclusion of actual historical personages (such as King George III, Lord Byron, and Lord Wellington) shows a keen eye for historical psychology, and makes these normally distant, almost godlike figures, into real breathing humans, with whom we might take tea and conversation on a winter's day in northern England.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 10

And speaking of the North: Clarke's love for northern England, in all its gloomy majesty, pervades every page of this book. Most Britons (especially northerners) love to joke/complain about how terrible and gloomy their weather is, but Clarke paints a loving portrait of windswept moors and grey winter hills, of darkling forests and white winter skies filled with cawing ravens.

The brown fields were partly flooded; they were strung with chains of chill, grey pools. The pattern of the pools had meaning. The pools had been written on to the fields by the rain. The pools were a magic worked by the rain, just as the tumbling of the black birds against the grey was a spell that the sky was working and the motion of grey-brown grasses was a spell that the wind made. Everything had meaning.

These are not the kind of images you would ever find in a travel brochure, but I find that they strike a chord deep within me: being from Michigan, her descriptions of wet, muddy earth and puddles reflecting pale grey skies has given me a new appreciation for the natural beauty of the place I live. I've noticed that after reading this book, I spend a lot more time looking at the sky and the landscape around me, and I just can't shake the feeling that, well... I'll just let Miss Clarke tell you in her own words:
This land is all too shallow
It is painted on the sky
And trembles like the wind-swept rain
When the Raven King goes by.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Grammatical Grimoire

[Warning: I'm about to get all English-major up in here, so if you couldn't care less about grammar and punctuation, I suggest you get out now.]

It's always bothered me that "proper" style in English, according to unassailable sources such as the Purdue OWL and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, is to place commas inside of quotation-marks, even when a comma was not present in the quoted text.

Using Hamlet's famous utterance as an example, here are a few "wrong" ways to quote a sentence...

  • "Alas, poor Yorick!" exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick", exclaimed Prince Hamlet.
  • "Alas, poor Yorick" exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

...and the "right" way:

  • "Alas, poor Yorick," exclaimed Prince Hamlet. 

Note that the original sentence ("Alas, poor Yorick!") ends with an exclamation-point, not a comma. The sentence must be altered in order to make it fit with accepted citation style, and I've always taken exception to this rule.

It strikes me as strange, perhaps even a little dishonest, that style requires us to add punctuation where none existed in the original text. Granted, it's not a serious alteration to change a period or an exclamation-point to a comma, but it is a change nonetheless.

OK, Fry, you have a point. But hear me out!

Quotation marks are supposed to signify a direct quotation, to tell the reader that the text quoted therein appears exactly as it appeared in the original source: word-for-word, letter-for letter, and character-for-character. Normally, even capitalization cannot be changed without making it clear that something in the text has been altered from its original form. For instance:

  • "[P]oor Yorick," as Hamlet calls him, was his late father's court-jester.

If we're not even supposed to change the capitalization of a single letter in any text we quote, then how can we justify changing where and whether the sentence appears to end? Not every sentence needs to be quoted from start to finish, but for people who are so anal-retentive about correctness and uniformity, it's very strange that English teachers are not just allowing, but commanding us to misquote our sources.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


PROMETHEA, VOLUME 1 (issues 1-6)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artists: J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Charles Vess

Imagine a living story, penned and refined repeatedly and made flesh over the centuries by a long string of mortal "vessels," armed with the cleverness of Hermes and the wisdom of Thoth, and a bitchin' energy-caduceus for good measure: you now have a pretty accurate portrait of Promethea, the titular heroine of this extra-weird title from Alan Moore.

I'll admit that I was a little afraid (and reasonably so, I think) that Promethea was going to be little more than pseudo-mythological cheesecake. But somehow, despite having a male writer, a male artist, and wearing a bronze mid-thigh skirt and shoulder-baring bustier, Promethea feels like a legitimate icon of Mystical Femenine Strength. As Princess Diana of Themyscira has proven time and time again, a woman's taste in clothing is irrelevant to her ability to bust heads and kick asses, and I'm sorry I initially judged this particular book by its cover.

...though this alternate cover by Alex Ross IS pretty awesome-looking.

The story begins in Alexandria, Egypt, in 411 A.D. An old magician senses that a mob of religious extremists is coming to murder him. He tells his young daughter Promethea to flee into the desert, promising that "all my love and all my gods shall be about thee as a mantle." He then confronts the mob, and proceeds to use the Jedi Mind Trick to compel the mob to kill him. (lolwhut?) Who is this man, and why does he use his magic to seal his own doom? These questions remain tantalizingly unanswered during the first volume, but they do a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the tale. Right from the get-go, the author establishes that he is not going to spoon-feed us all of the answers; we're going to need to work for it.

Next, the narrative jumps ahead by about 1,600 years to New York city, just before the turn of the millennium. Sophie Bangs is a college student writing a term paper on Promethea, a character who seems to reappear in folklore and literature over the centuries, sometimes flowing from the pens of authors who could not possibly have been familiar with her previous incarnations. As is often the case with college students who investigate the supernatural, Sophie is soon swept up in a strange new world: one of ancient conspiracies, Goetic demons, Hermetic sorcery, Greco-Egyptian mysticism, living stories, a parallel universe composed of human thought and imagination, and at least one tearful, catchphrase-spouting gorilla.

Strangely, this panel makes perfect sense when read in context.

Not only does PROMETHEA, VOLUME 1 pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors, I'm pretty sure it actually fails the Reverse Bechdel Test: there's more than one male character in this book, but all of their conversations are solely about Promethea/Sophie and her various female helpers.

Moore can get metaphysical at times, even mystical, but it never feels like he's preaching; we're free to ignore this strange new worldview, or incorporate it into our paradigm, as we see fit. For instance: at one point, a previous incarnation of Prometha takes our heroine aside to show her the different layers/levels of reality, progressing from solid matter to emotions to thought and reason to the soul and beyond. In the hands of a less-talented author, this kind of unabashed philosophizing would come off as preachy (or worse, goofy New Age mumbo-jumbo). But under Moore's skilled direction, it gains real literary heft. It doesn't feel like he's talking to the reader, we're just watching one incarnation of Promethea speaking with another, free from proselytizing on the author's part.

One of my favorite parts of PROMETHEA was the highly unorthodox layouts of the panels; I was particularly fond of the two-page spread in issue six which played out across the "panes" of the wings of a Mayan butterfly god. They're not space-efficient, but they make the reader constantly aware of the graphic nature of the tale, and they emphasize how Sophie's worldview is changing in dramatic and unexpected ways. And it's kind of cool that the artist is confident enough that he feels he doesn't need to use every square inch of space to tell the story, that he's willing to "take his time," so to speak.

Overall, PROMETHEA is a fascinating read for anyone with interest in literature, magic, and all things mystical. 18th-century poetry, trench-lore of WWI, pulp magazines of the 1920s, even "Little Nemo in Slumberland" all contribute to Promethea's constituent body of modern folklore; there's something here for everyone to enjoy. And of course, it's absolutely delicious to read. Most writers would struggle to meld such wildly different genres and formats into one narrative, but under Moore's guidance it seems only natural that these seemingly-disparate threads of story would be woven together into a cohesive whole.

This tale is deliciously weird, and I can't wait to find out where it goes next. Stay tuned for more info, Dear Reader; all my love and all my gods be as a mantle about thee.

You go, girl!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

[Video Game Review] Journey

journey screenshot

Journey, © 2012 Thatgamecompany

This game almost makes me wish I smoked, because I think I need a cigarette after playing it.

The best word I can think of to describe Journey is "exquisite": in terms of design, visuals, music, playability, length, fun factor, and overall gestalt. I haven't really been part of the video gaming scene since I finished college, but this might be the most beautiful game I've ever played (and I mean that in more than just a graphical sense).

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Journey has truly spiritual dimensions. It feels like an interactive parable from one of the world's great religions, one about the human soul, life and death, friendship, and the rewards which flow from striving towards something greater than oneself, even at great personal cost. This game has a lot of depth for something you can finish in under three hours.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure that I can even really say that Journey is a game at all, at least in the traditional sense. It's impossible to take damage (the worst that can happen is losing a bit of your "scarf"; the longer it gets, the farther you can jump), there's no time limit, and the "puzzles" are very simplistic. There is no loss condition, and basically nothing to do except move forward. Despite this, there were moments, deep in the bowels of some ancient ruin, being pursued by unstoppable, flying serpent-guardians made of stone, where I was truly afraid, despite knowing for a fact that there was nothing they could do to hurt or kill me, even in-game.

Thatgamecompany is renowned for not simply releasing action-oriented titles, but interactive works of art, which are specifically designed to provoke emotional responses in players. I would say that Journey achieves this goal in spectacular fashion.

You'll grow far more attached to this nameless, faceless avatar than you would expect.

The game opens on a vast and endless desert, with the player's non-gendered avatar sitting in the sand. It stands, and after a brief, wordless tutorial on how to manipulate the camera, the player is left to decide which way to go. That's it: no half-hour unskippable opening cinematic, no backstory, no text, no voice-over, no nothing. I found it deeply refreshing to simply be thrust into the game-world and allowed to make my own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Since the only moving thing in this featureless world of sand is a flapping "scarf" atop a nearby dune, the player will most likely decide to move towards that. As you crest the dune, the camera pulls back to simultaneously reveal a shining mountaintop in the impossibly-far distance, and a stunning panoramic vista of ancient sand-choked ruins. The word "Journey" fades into view above the mountaintop, and you realize that the developers have just gotten you to willingly walk right into the title-screen without even realizing that you were playing right along. Journey is full of moments like this, where gameplay and game-design work together, instead of at cross-purposes. Sometimes the camera-work was so smooth that it was hard to tell whether I was playing a game or directing a movie.

Another thing that I loved is that there's zero dialogue in this game. No text, no narration, no spoken dialogue, not even a HUD. Asides from the aforementioned title-screen and the end credits, Journey is a game totally devoid of linguistic content. Just like in real life, there's nothing blinking in the corner of your vision to distract you from what you're seeing and doing, which has the effect of keeping the player in the here-and-now, rather than distracted how many points they've got left or have earned so far. This game isn't about winning, it's about... well, the journey.

And what a journey it is.

When this vista opened up, I was literally struck dumb in the middle of a sentence; all I could do was stare in awe.

This game will take you over sand and under the sea and through the earth and up, up, up into the very highest reaches of the stratosphere. You'll run, leap, fly, swim, and even sneak your way through a world which feels simultaneously solid and otherworldly, plausible and fantastic. You'll feel wonder, foreboding, fear, sorrow, and even the tender concern for a beloved traveling companion.

You might even make a friend along the way: about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that I suddenly had a companion, a second figure identical to myself. Like me, it seemed unable to talk, but we could "sing" to each other (if you can call it that; it's really more like a pulse of white light accompanied by a tone and a glowing glyph). Since singing and touching refilled each other's jump-power, we stuck close together whenever possible. By the end, I was surprised at how emotionally attached I got to my nameless, faceless "buddy", even if s/he couldn't communicate with me in any linguistic sense (kind of like the Companion Cube from Portal).

"I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam."

Journey is full of genuinely touching moments, despite not having a single word of written nor spoken dialogue. It's packed from beginning to end with a sense of wonder and exploration, of mind-blowing revelations and stunning, silencing vistas which emerge without warning. The desert (indeed, the entire game) reminded me of trekking over Sleeping Bear Dunes as a child: you never know what you're going to see when you crest the next rise, but it's sure to blow you away.

Friday, September 25, 2015

[Book Review] A Detroit Anthology

A Detroit Anthology (2014)
Edited by Anna Clark
Featuring essays, photographs, art, and poetry by Grace Lee Boggs, John Carlisle, Desiree Cooper, dream hampton, Steve Hughes, Jamaal May, Tracie McMillan, Marsha Music, Shaka Senghor, Thomas J. Sugrue, and many others.

Named a Notable Book of 2015 by The Library of Michigan

"I see a bunch of regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else. Which is why I wholeheartedly believe that Detroit will be just fine."
—"We Love Detroit; Even If You Don't," by Aaron Foley

Despite having lived adjacent to the Motor City for virtually all of my formative years, I realized recently that I knew next to nothing about Detroit. Sure, I'd been to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village on field trips, and I had been to Greektown many times with my family, but I was ashamed and a little dismayed to realize that even in my late twenties I still knew almost nothing about the city's history or culture. It never even occurred to me to ask why the city seemed so empty and blighted; as a kid, I just assumed that all major cities consisted of central hubs ringed by miles of empty structures and blight.

So I've taken it upon myself to start learning more about the Motor City and its geography, history, culture, and people. After a quick crash-course in local history (I highly recommend Scott Martelle's Detroit: A Biography for a handy overview of the city's three centuries of colorful existence), I decided to launch right into discovering what it's like to actually live in a city which most Americans view with a complex mixture of disgust, pity, and fear.

Right from the Introduction, the editor remarks that "[e]ven local writers often pen stories that are meant to explain Detroit to those who live elsewhere." This is not one of those books: it's full of art by Detroiters, about Detroit and for Detroit(ers).

Not all of the entries are stories, either. There seems to be a roughly-even split between prose, poetry, and black-and-white photography. I was glad to see, however, that this is not a coffee-table anthology of schadenfreude-laced ruin porn; with the exception of two mandatory shots of the G.A.R. Building and a certain baroque parking garage, there are no images of abandoned structures in this anthology. What the editor chooses to focus on instead is the 713,000 residents who still call Detroit their home, and are living with the fallout from all those highly-photogenic ruins. This is not a rose-colored view of a city on the rebound, but it doesn't wallow in loss either. There are a few shots of the poor and the homeless, yes, but there are a far greater number of shots of everyday Detroiters doing everyday things, like fishing on Belle Isle, tending community gardens, children blowing bubbles at Hart Plaza, people waiting for buses, and one particularly delightful image of a twentysomething electronica fan doing what appears to be the Twist at an outdoor music festival, opposite a small girl in a sundress who is zealously imitating his dance moves. In short: the normality which can still be found in what is arguably one of the least-normal cities in America.

I'll admit I'm not much of a poet, or a critic thereof, and as a result much of the poetry in this anthology left me more confused than moved. I'm willing to chalk this up to unfamiliarity with the form, though quite a few of them left an impression on me. Some of them left me more with a vague sense of emotion formed by a string of seemingly disconnected words (most of them negative), though several (such as "Infernal" by Tyehimba Jess and "what you'd find buried in the dirt under charles f. kettering sr. high school (detroit, michigan)" by francine j. harris [name in lowercase by choice]) were quite profoundly moving.

For me, as a writer who works primarily in prose, the main point of this anthology was the narratives about living in (or surviving) Detroit. Some of these stories are funny. Most are poignant and sad. Many are shocking, or angry and defiant. All of them are true and, by virtue of that truth, incredibly raw. Take for instance "The Imam I Knew", in which Omar Syed Mahmood recounts a side of the now-infamous Imam Luqman which the papers failed to mention: a man who was willing to dig into his own family's winter food-budget so that other families in his flock would not go hungry during Ramadan. In "The Fixer" by John Carlisle, one man runs an unregistered lawnmower-repair business out of a parking lot next to the abandoned shop he hopes to buy someday, waiting patiently for the day when it will go into tax lien and he can snap it up, and watching helplessly as scrappers dismantle the property which he does not yet own.

Reading this anthology will give you a picture of Detroit which is often glossed over in mainstream media, which is replete with head-shaking, finger-wagging sermons about the death of the American Dream, as embodied by the Motor City. A Detroit Anthology reminds us that the city is still very much alive, thank-you-very-much, and to mourn it while it still lives is a disservice to all the human beings who are still trying to make their way in a city which the rest of the world has already written-off. This anthology seeks to un-write, to rewrite that dismissal, and show that the city's motto is just as relevant and necessary and true as it's ever been: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus ("We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes").