Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Highly Recommended: LARB Long-Reads

Summer seems to bring out the best in the Los Angeles Review of Books. They've put out a bunch of long-reads that are composting in my consciousness, on topics of lifelong appeal.

Neal Stephenson is someone I've read and ... kinda ... enjoyed. Although, to be honest, he's someone I've returned to again and again out of hopes he'd grab me and scramble my view of things the way he did so thoroughly when I read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, back in the day. Cryptonomicon retained some of that power, but in the tomes that followed I resorted to a whole lot of speed-reading. He seems like a writer in pursuit of something, though what that something is, I couldn't say. I read, but I clearly do not attend.
Not exactly "Captain Obvious"
"We hear a lot about how big [Stephenson's] ideas are," says Peter Berard, "but get little substantive engagement with these ideas, especially outside of science fiction circles." Berard takes a significant step to address this deficit, in Neal Stephenson's Ideal Forms, over here. In the process, he uncovers some peculiarly Stephensonian tropes, including "The armed WASP."
Madeleine L'Engle, with daughters.
"Madeleine L'Engle uses intergenerational encounters to complicate our sense of time," says Jonathan Alexander, who goes on to add,
"Recent work by queer theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman and Jack Halberstam, traces how contemporary neoliberal understandings of time orient us toward productivity, watching the clock and our bodies (think biological clocks) to make the most of the time we have and contribute to the maintenance of society. L’Engle’s approach to time is not 'queer' in its questioning of normative orientations — after all, these are books concerned with the maturation of young people into pretty standard (and heterosexual) notions of functional adulthood. But time for L’Engle is queer in the sense that it hardly ever moves in a straight line in her novels. Everyone, no matter how old or seemingly 'mature,' is caught in time, dealing with the complexities of living and loving." 
Alexander's Late L'Engle: Wrinkles of Time, Redeemed is over here.
Striking a somewhat different note...
Grant Morrison's belief in magic is, I would say. a great deal less metaphorical than L'Engle's was. If you read his impassioned autobiography/history of comics, you'll see how it has prompted him to write some of the most remarkable and subversive comic book storylines of the past 30 years. The Multiversity, his latest for DC, has met with more than a few critical shrugs of dismissal -- e.g., Gregory L. Reece wishes he'd listened to the advert banner. William Bradley argues this is an egregious mis-read of what Morrison is up to, and hails The Multiversity as "the smartest book DC Comics has published in years" -- over here.
You will need help navigating this. Go here.
One of the tensions Bradley explores is whether a comic book can be both subversive, and a smashing commercial success. My inclination is to say, "Um, yeah," and move on. For some artists in the trenches, however, this is a soul-rending conundrum -- Bill Watterson, of Calvin & Hobbes fame, would be the poster-boy of this existential condition; Charles M. Schultz its antithesis. Not surprisingly, the two had a history of taking subtle digs at each other in interviews. Luke Epplin uncovers it all in a terrific piece, Selling Out The Newspaper Comic Strip, over here.
Enclosed: One (1) ACME Doof-Warrior Apparatus
And, finally, I am greatly chuffed to see Isabel Ortiz highlight the resemblance of Mad Max: Fury Road to Chuck Jones' Road Runner shorts, in her piece The Cartoon Bodies of "Mad Max: Fury Road" over here.

While composing this post I had to fight the urge to end every paragraph with, "Highly recommended." Yup -- they're all highly recommended. So put down that timeless classic you vowed to finish this summer, and read these timely distractions instead!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase Two

With incredibly cool guns -- and a young David McCallum!

Five years ago our family watched the entire TV series, and loved it (see Phase One, here and here). The trailers for Guy Ritchie's attempted movie reboot looked fairly promising, so it was a sure bet we'd make a family effort to see the flick on opening weekend.

And so last Saturday found the four of us parked before the silver screen, humming the Jerry Goldsmith theme song while we waited for the lights to dim and the movie to start ("waiting like a communicant," is how James Wolcott describes the mood).

Cue the first critical disappointment: no Jerry Goldsmith theme song.

Considering how the movie (and soundtrack) exults in so much lavish 60s pop ephemera that it risks comparison to Austin Powers, this absence is inexplicable and gets the movie off to a rocky start. Nevertheless, I was determined to give Ritchie and Co. every possible advantage, so I took a deep cleansing breath and settled in for the duration.

When Armie Hammer stomped in as a Terminator-style Ilya Kuryakin, I reminded myself that the Impossible Missions Force never used to solve their conundrums in a series of lengthy chases and fiery explosions -- something I mostly overlook whenever I sit down for a Mission: Impossible movie. Still, an Ilya prone to room-wrecking fits of rage took some getting used to.

Henry Cavil brings a wry detachment to Napoleon Solo that more-or-less works, though Robert Vaughn's sly and unshakeable sense of amusement at the endless absurdities was dearly missed, as was his boyish, "Give me a kiss, we might both like it," manner of seduction. And Hugh Grant's turn as Mr. Waverly raises everyone's game so appreciably, I wished he'd somehow been grafted into the earlier two-thirds of the movie.

The truth is I just wasn't feeling any of it -- until about the halfway mark, when a scene of such perfectly framed comic hijinx occurs, it highlights the potential that's been lying untapped beneath the film the entire time.

So Ritchie's movie gets a "meh" from me. My wife thought there were enough scenes like the one I alluded to to recommend the movie on the whole. My older daughter found it largely amusing, but was underwhelmed by Alicia Vikander, whose occasional attempts at a German accent would have benefited mightily from an afternoon of Hogan's Heroes.

The younger daughter loved it, however -- her first concern leaving the theatre was that Ritchie might blow the sequel as badly as Abrams did his second Star Trek. Given the box office results, she probably doesn't have any reason to worry.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Problem/Solution: Permanent Stickers On Book-Jackets

During a recent foray into the States, I spotted some remaindered books whose prices were, despite the eroded state of our Canuck-Bucks, too good to pass up.

So far so good. However, there seems to be something in the national character of the US that insists on labeling the dust-jackets of remainders with permanent stickers. I tried all the usual tricks of the trade, including applying lighter fluid to the glue. This used to be a sure-fire (giggle) last resort that always did the trick. Today's glue is sterner stuff, alas, and just smears out.

In the case of the E.L. Doctorow title, I had a difficult decision to make: keep the now-gummy dust-jacket, or discard it and read the naked hard-cover? I often opt for the latter, but this meant carrying around an overly-somber pitch-black book. Who wants to read that? On the other hand, who wants to read a gummy-covered book that picks up fingerprints, lint and cat hair?

As I pondered my options I recalled an older gentleman who used to audit several of my university philosophy courses. He fastidiously papered over every one of his textbooks, using butcher's paper -- even the Penguin paperbacks. Inspired, I now retrieved some paper grocery bags, a pair of scissors and a Sharpie and got to work.

Et viola! I now possess a book with a cover that entices (well ... it entices me, at least).

Most gratifying of all, I've replaced the pandemonious puffery of his peers with a little of my own. Everybody wins!

Friday, August 14, 2015

While My Guitar Not-So-Gently Weeps: Rocksmith 2014

I recently turned the corner on a half-century of years, and, under the urging of my younger brother, awarded myself an inexpensive aid through the inescapable mid-life crisis -- my very first electric guitar, and amp.

Commence humming "Also Sprach Zarathustra"!

I've been a campfire strummer and classical finger-picker of modest ability throughout my adult life. I took piano lessons for five or six years as a child, so I can read music. I've hopefully got another decade of reasonable finger dexterity ahead of me. How difficult could it be to expand my skills as a guitarist?

Well, it's not without its challenges. But in this era of digital innovation there are ingenious ways and means of breaking through them. I was particularly curious about a program called Rocksmith 2014, which bills itself as "The Fastest Way To Learn Guitar."

Not me -- in case you're wondering.

Some years earlier I'd played a bit of Guitar Hero with my godson (who absolutely demolished me), and wondered, "Why couldn't this be done with a real guitar?" Ubisoft obviously had the same thought, and programmed their game to play to spec.

It's an interesting experience. My first reaction was, until they come up with a Devin Townsend or Steven Wilson song package, the default song selection mostly rates a "meh." I am grateful for the inclusion of "The Spirit of Radio," of course, but whether the player does or doesn't like the songs hardly matters. None of them get played in a recognizable manner anyway, at least not until the player advances to that level -- which, in my case with "The Spirit of Radio," won't be for a very, very long time.

Wait, correction: my actual first reaction was, "Where's the literature?!" Rocksmith does not have a user's manual, which originally threw me into a panic. It's an inspired move, however -- kids want to get going right away, of course, and Ubisoft has designed their program with that in mind. And I have to say, the game navigation is impressively intuitive. You queue up the game, plug in your guitar -- and you're off to the races.

My third thought was, "This is the fastest way to learn guitar -- maybe." There are caveats. Rocksmith encourages players to register for their 60 Day Challenge, the basic idea being you commit to playing this game for an hour a day in an uninterrupted 60 day stretch. Of course, sixty hours devoted to guitar practice of any stripe should get you pretty nimble, no matter what the program.

The other caveat is the player will learn to read tabulature, not standard notation. Is that a big deal? Mm, probably not, but piano players will find the less elastic muscles in their brains getting an unexpected workout.

What impressed me most at first blush is Rocksmith's immediate insistence on playing past the fifth fret. For a campfire strummer, that's the equivalent of pulling off the water-wings and getting thrown into the deep end of the pool. And, as with the metaphor, the experience is both bracing and exhilarating. You've got to get comfortable with the entire length of the guitar neck -- no point in delaying that, so just do it. It is, or should be, easy-peasy technique, but the business of jumping from seventh to twelfth to fourteenth, then back down to seventh again is something that requires practice. And Rocksmith noobs will get plenty and plenty of practice (60 hours in two months, if they follow through).

But the final caveat is pretty much what I expected -- there are elements of play and learning that an actual flesh-and-blood teacher can address and impart with greater speed and efficiency. So, to that end, I have the number of a recommended instructor. I'll give him a call, and hopefully come September school will once again begin for yours truly.