Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Swift Vote

Satire is difficult. And who is the audience for it? George S. Kaufman said: “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Is that because the audience is too dumb to get it? Or maybe they don’t want a nice evening spoiled by reminders of all that’s wrong with the world?

More to the point, how could an otherwise well-educated woman such as myself have missed out on one of the world’s most famous satires: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift? For it’s true, I must make the Shame-Faced Admission™ that until now I hadn’t read Swift’s classic book.

Gulliver’s Travels, the full title of which is Travel into Several Remote Nations of the World, recounts, in his own voice, the fantastical adventures of Lemuel Gulliver. In his first tale Gulliver is shipwrecked on an island inhabited by a race of tiny people, his next tale takes him to a land of giants, the third to an island in the sky filled with philosophers and absent-minded scientists (no, not Seattle, but close) and the fourth finds him sharing oats with the admirable Houyhnhnms.

(BTW, this is the third shipwreck in the last four Shame-Faced books I’ve read. It makes me never want to get on a boat again.)

Satire walks a fine line – too funny and you obscure your point. Too obvious and you’ve written a pamphlet. Gulliver’s Travels is known as a book that gets it right. I can add my agreement. Engrossing and imaginative, it posits worlds one can believe, not quite as our own, but with human nature clearly on display.

Before starting the book, I was a bit concerned that I wouldn’t get the allusions and be as lost as Swift would be in the audience for Saturday Night Live. By not knowing much (read: any) of the political history of 18th century Europe, I’m sure I missed a lot. But there was still plenty to glean from the petty concerns of the Lilliputians and the coarseness of the Brobdingnagians.

Imagine Swift taking in an SNL skit about Paris Hilton. He wouldn’t get the jokes about the sex tape, but he’d recognize a vapid clotheshorse when he saw one. Some failings never go out of style.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bridge for Dummies

It will come as no surprise to those who have read my previous reports from the world of high culture that not only had I not read Thornton Wilder's The Bridge at San Luis Rey, my concept of the book was way off base.

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "“Here she goes again. Let me guess: she thought The Bridge at San Luis Rey was about the largest metropolitan area in Missouri."

Not even close.

"“No? Then she thought it was about Alec Guinness building a bridge for the Japanese in Burma."

Wrong again. I'm no fool. I knew when the book was written (1927) so I knew it couldn'’t be a tale of World War II.

I assumed it was a World War I story. New Americans out of place in the Old Europe, Iberian division.

So not only do I have to make the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I hadn't read Wilder'’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I have to admit I was about 200 years and 5000 miles off. I couldn'’t have faked it if the subject came up at a cocktail party. (And why am I never invited to that kind of cocktail party? The few I'’ve attended feature conversations that center around local weather - terrible, and traffic - worse.)

For those of you as clueless as I am (and I'’m hoping there are a few), here'’s the scoop.

Wilder's novel chronicles the lives led by five Peruvians who happen to be on the titular bridge the day it collapses. He begins by telling of a monk who saw the bridge collapse. He investigates the lives of the people who died, sure that what he finds will show that it was the ideal time for each of them to be taken, thus proving, empirically, the existence of the Almighty.

But we are not reading the monk'’s book, which the church promptly burned. The narrator of the book we'’re reading knows all about these five lives and is not out to prove a thing. But the episodes, encompassing cruelty, unrequited love, compassion and wisdom, do prove something. About humanity. About living life with a clear eye and an open heart. We read beautifully drawn examples of pride and humility, art and artifice, religion and faithlessness; and something is proven. Perhaps not about a god who knows the best time for each of us to die, but about the beauty of imperfect humanity.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

One For The Road

How can two Billy Wilder fans have missed The Lost Weekend? In the sixth installment of the Shame-Faced podcast (26 minutes, 9MB), we finally catch up with that movie as well as another landmark film on the subject of alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses. At the very least, you’ll want to listen to find out how we handle the Shame-Faced opening cocktail.

Direct download it here, or get it at iTunes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Never A Crossed Sword

Shame-Faced Admission™: I thought I’d read The Three Musketeers.

I had a copy of the swashbuckler by Alexandre Dumas when I was younger. Or what I thought was a copy of it. I read the book, its six-by-four inch pages filled with big print and numerous illustrations, until it fell apart. Repeat viewings of the 1970s Musketeer films, directed by Richard Lester with scripts by Flashman creator George MacDonald Fraser, cemented my imagined familiarity with Dumas’ novel. I was ready to discourse on it at length in plummy gentlemen’s clubs the world over. The gentlemen’s clubs with leather chairs and brandy, not the ones with topless dancers named Brandi. Although I’d talk about Dumas there, too. There’s always at least one dancer going to college.

Realizing that Dumas’ novel was considerably longer didn’t stop me from telling people that I’d read the book. When I heard that a new edition translated by the illustrious Richard Pevear was coming out, I decided it was time to experience the genuine article.

(I owned several “classics” from the same children’s publisher, and may not rectify every situation as I’ve done here. Meaning I will go to my grave insisting that I did indeed read Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. So there.)

My childhood Musketeers focused on the plot, so I was spared the occasional clunkiness of Dumas’ storytelling (most likely the result of the book’s being published serially). But I was also denied the rich pleasures of the author’s voice. Worldly, conspiratorial, larded with nuggets of sound philosophy:

As we know, there is a special god for drunkards and lovers.

A good turn remembered is an insult rendered.

One must speculate on people’s defects, not on their virtues.

The title characters are vividly drawn yet schematic. Porthos, enslaved by his appetites. Aramis, devoted to the church. Athos, haunted by his past. The book’s hero D’Artagnan is a synthesis of their best qualities, and thus the most fleshed out.

Thanks to Charlton Heston, I think of Cardinal Richelieu as a villain. But Dumas’ version is a pure politician, fixated on authority and not ideology. He alone sees the worth of D’Artagnan and his compatriots.

Dumas is so bewitched by the true villain, the cunning Milady de Winter, that he cedes much of the book’s last act to her, forgetting his protagonists entirely. (The Muske-who? How many are there?) Her actions in the extended closing section – in which Milady, unable to use her body to seduce her Puritan jailer, turns the man’s religious beliefs against him – makes Hannibal Lecter look like Bugs Meany, that kid who beats up Encyclopedia Brown.

Milady’s scheming culminates in a shocking act of violence based, as the movies say, on actual events. Dumas treated history as his own personal theme park. If his tale would be improved by involving real-life figures who were long dead, not yet born, or nowhere in the vicinity at the time, in they’d go. Anything to help the action. (Pevear’s meticulous endnotes help keep fact and fiction straight.)

Frankly, I prefer Dumas’ approach. I loathe people who only read historical fiction because “at least I’m learning something.” History is for history books. What I want from a novel is a story, which Dumas delivers in spades. A John Ford movie coined the phrase “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Alexandre Dumas was putting that theory into practice centuries ago.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Seven Chapters Before the Mast

After reading Robinson Crusoe I was in the mood for a not-so-land-locked adventure. I fancied one that took place on the high seas. So I picked up Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

For isn’t Kidnapped the story of a young man picked up off the streets of England somewhere and taken on some kind of a ship by various ne’er-do-wells and having adventures most exotic amongst pirates and other swarthy types?

Short answer: No.

I suppose it’s here I must make the Shame-Faced Admission™ that not only had I not read Kidnapped, I hadn’t read any books by Stevenson. I think I was getting Kidnapped confused with Treasure Island.

The map in the front of my edition should have been the tip-off. It shows the top half of Scotland from Mull in the west to Edinburgh in the east. That’s it. Just Scotland. It dinnae occur to me until later that the Channel Islands aren’t even on the map, never mind Fiji and other locales where pirates are prevalent.

So what of Kidnapped? Young David Balfour, our hero, is a “steady lad…and a canny goer.” Having been sold out by his miserly uncle (Uncle Ebenezer, in fact. Are all miserly uncles named Ebenezer?) he is kidnapped by greedy and loutish sailors. David’s time aboard ship is brief, but it’s nothing if not eventful. A siege of the roundhouse leads to this sight the next morning. “The floor was covered with broken glass and in a horrid mess of blood, which took away my hunger.” Now that’s adventure on the high seas, even if they weren’t even far enough off the coast to play keno.

When the marine leg of his journey ends abruptly, David must walk his way back across Scotland (I tracked it on the handy map) with Alan Breck. Breck is vain, drinks and gambles and there is no one better to lead David across the heather and back to his uncle’s house. There Uncle Ebenezer gets the comeuppance we’ve been hoping for.

Based on historical events and personages, Kidnapped taught me a bit about the history of Scotland and made me realize how much more I don’t know about it. Even better, this well-loved author confirmed my preferences in traveling companions:

Always opt for the dandy with a silver tongue, especially if he knows how to wield a mean cutlass.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Body Shots

It used to be you could make a sex movie and not have it be, you know, a “sex movie.” In the fifth installment of the Shame-Faced podcast (25 minutes, 9MB), we take a look at two groundbreaking films from an era when films about sex were for adults and not horny teenagers: Last Tango in Paris and Carnal Knowledge.

Direct download it here, or get it at iTunes.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Coming Ayn Rand Again

Here’s the thing about the classics. It takes time to read them, and even more time to come up with marginally interesting observations about them.

Time has been a precious commodity for the two of us of late. Rest assured, new posts and podcasts are in the works. But we did want to freshen up the place a little. So here’s a July 2005 post from on Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD, one of the posts that got this whole Shame-Faced Admission™ business started.

The New York Times recently described Christopher Cox, the California congressman nominated to the Securities and Exchange Commission by President Bush, as “a devoted student” of Ayn Rand. Raising the prospect that fifty years from now, one of President (Chelsea) Clinton’s nominees might be “a devoted student” of Dan Brown.

Later, George Will claimed Cox’s enthusiasm for Rand was overstated. The Rand Institute said that Cox’s first act should be to abolish the commission he’s been named to lead.

Rand has always seemed like something you should read at an impressionable age, like Tolkien or Interview With The Vampire. I never got to those. Saw the movies, though.

Over the years I’ve picked up a little about Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. Most of what I know about her I learned from a guy who lived in my freshman dorm. Over Christmas break, he read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and came back to school a changed man. I can still remember him striding down the hall upon his return, arms spread messianically wide. When he reached his room, he pulled a marker out of his coat and wrote EGO in huge letters on the door. Only then did he enter, smoke a few Winstons and doze off.

What made an impression on me was the fact that he’d carried the pen with him. No stopping to search through luggage for him. I respect anyone who inspires others to feats of showmanship, and vowed to read one of Rand’s novels.

What can I say? The last few years have been a little busy.

First, as a work of fiction: The only character who behaves in a remotely human fashion is the one Rand holds up to ridicule. In a book purportedly about architecture, her descriptions of the craft make no sense. The ending is ludicrous. Her style is turgid.

But I couldn’t stop reading. Rand’s tale spans decades and includes epic grudges, thwarted passions, dizzying rises and falls. She wrote in an era when authors strove to tell big stories, and the force of her narrative carries the day.

As a philosophical work, things get a tad muddled. But the core ideas – the power of the individual, the dangers of groupthink – resonated with me. It’s easy to see how they could be misinterpreted or misapplied. There’s a section on discrediting someone through false charges (“Reason can be fought with reason. How are you going to fight the unreasonable?”) that seems to have been grafted directly into contemporary political playbooks. I’d wager that free-market conservatives like Cox respond to Rand’s notion that there’s nothing evil about the desire to make money or even spending it to enjoy luxury. But they probably miss her larger point that money is only a means to an end, and that personal luxury eventually becomes a wasted effort to impress others.

I’m still immature enough to feel pride at finishing a book that’s over 700 pages long and doesn’t feature a boy wizard. Eventually I’ll tackle Atlas Shrugged. I have to rest my arms first.