Mitch vs. The 38

Myth, Commerce, and Art in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark
July 18, 2011, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Shameless Self-Promotion

A short write up I did a few months ago for my friend Geoff’s blog on Julie Taymor’s version of the Spider-Man musical:

Hiatus Interuptus
July 17, 2011, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Overview

The battle against the armies of the unread begins anew.

It’s been well over a year.  I am a father now and  I am busier at work, but strangely, I’m reading much more.  I’ve read a handful of the initial 38 books, as well as a few others. I was really kidding myself thinking I could read them all straight through.  So anyway, my hope now is that this will at last become a proper blog – with me and my experience with whatever I read or see being the main focus, and  the 38 books acting as a sort of long simmering subplot that will occasionally come to the forefront. 

I’m also going to use this as a place to link to other stuff that I’ve written online, and for anything else I want to write about.  But the main goal is still to read the 38 books from the first post.  Once I have done that, the blog will be done.

So now, I play catch up.

The Accidental Tourist
April 11, 2010, 12:40 pm
Filed under: Accidental Tourist

I have finished the first of the 38 books — Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. I originally found this book on the street.

Part of the charm of living in New York City is that people change apartments quite frequently, often leaving a treasure trove of unwanted or unmovable knickknacks and furniture on the sidewalk. This seems to happen about three times a year – in January, in June and in November – lining up with school semesters, I guess. Most of the furniture in my old apartment came from the street, and much of it returned there when we moved out.

As someone who cannot leave a used bookstore without digging through every stack of discounted books, imagine my reaction to finding a whole box of perfectly good books on 84th Street. For the first few years I lived in the city, I had no self-control in these situations.  Regardless of if I was late for work or on my way to do whatever, upon seeing such a box on the street, I would bend over and give them an awkward, but diligent tossing through.

These abandoned collections were usually a perfect, predictable portrait of their long-lost owner. A dozen books on legal theory and a study guide for the LSAT. ( I always wondered if the owner passed or failed in situations like that.) A years worth of Elle magazine. Occasionally, there would be no logic to the collection – a cacophony of cookbooks, video game guides, and urban romance novels discarded together by pure chance. It was from a confused collection such as this that The Accidental Tourist first sprang into my life.

I can’t say why I picked it over the others, as I don’t remember that clearly. I do remember that it was the only book I grabbed that day. The copy I found has an armchair with angel wings embossed on its cover in gold foil, so maybe that courageous bit of design work was all it took.

Originally published in 1985, The Accidental Tourist enjoyed nine weeks of the New York Times Bestseller List, and was eventually adapted into a movie starring William Hurt, Geena Davis, and Kathleen Turner. Here is the trailer for the film, which was directed by Lawrence Kasden and looks fairly faithful:

Macon Leary is an ideal kind of central character in that he is normal enough to be relatable and familiar, but peculiar enough to offer the exotic experience everyone wants from a novel. Created before the it became trendy to label things like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Macon’s weird habits – like washing his laundry with him in the shower to save energy – have a lived-in, judgment-free charm. At the start of the book, Macon and his wife divorce a year after their twelve-year-old son has died. What follows is a traditional how-so-and-so-got-their-groove-back story, with Tyler providing what I found to be keen and affecting insights about the operation of the human emotional mechanism. This is a passage stuck with me, where Macon is thinking about his relationship to his wife, sort of post-mortem:

So they married the spring they graduated from college, and Macon went to work at the factory while Sarah taught English at a private school. It was seven years before Ethan was born. By that time, Sarah was no longer calling Macon “mysterious.” When he was quiet now it seemed to annoy her. Macon sensed this, but there was nothing he could do about it. In some odd way, he was locked inside the stand-offish self he’d assumed when he and she first met. He was frozen there. It was like that old warning of his grandmother’s: Don’t cross your eyes, they might get stuck that way. No matter how he tried to change is manner, Sarah continued to deal with him as if he were someone unnaturally cool-headed, some more even in temperament than she but perhaps not quite as feeling.

Weird as it sounds, I think I like Macon Leary’s story for the same reason I like Kill Bill Volume 2. Much like the incredible scene where Uma Thurman digs herself out of the grave, The Accidental Tourist takes one of my own personal fears and shows someone overcoming it. Indeed, when Macon eventually meets Muriel Pritchett – a blunt, spontaneous woman hired to train Macon‘s unruly dog – she says something interesting about her sister:

“Doesn’t it always work that way? My folks believe she’s wonderful. She’s the good one and I’m the bad one. It’s not her fault though; I don’t blame Claire. People just get fixed in these certain frames of other people’s opinions, don’t you find that’s true?”

Fearing that he will be stuck in his weird old ways and hung up on his deserting wife forever, Macon falls swiftly for the much-younger Muriel despite some fractious differences. His family members are not supportive of this strange new girl, which exhilarates Macon. Here is the ultimate self-revisionist fantasy, the one where you think you are pretending to be someone else deliberately, but you instead find that you are actually just being yourself for the first time. In Aldous Huxley’s essay The Doors of Perception, he suggests that most human behavior can be summed up with the understanding that we each (successfully or unsuccessfully) overact the part of our favorite fictional character: our idealized, internal self-image. Through Muriel, Macon is able to reinvent himself to match that internal idea and become the sort of person he always wanted too.

Just like we all hope we can, right? Sometimes there is no greater fear to me than the fear that I could be totally, utterly known by the people around me. That my every word and opinion has absolutely no potential to surprise, shock or awe. That I will be reduced to boring human lumber, an easily dissembled piece of biological furniture. Left on the sidewalk because I’m not worth lugging around.

But  you can find all kinds of surprising things on the street.

The Accidental Tourist exposes this as a silly fear, by showing that even the most finicky, peculiar person can always reinvent themselves in a positive way.

Hawking’s Humor
February 27, 2010, 12:50 pm
Filed under: Brief History of Time

Overall, I’ve found the first five chapters of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time way too dense.  This is probably because I have read a couple of books by Carl Sagan and have grown accustomed to his more laidback approach – Sagan is an astronomer, while Hawking is a physicist.  Though both sciences study the elegant soup of the Universe, I see now the practical difference in what they do.   Sagan always goes out of his way to illustrate where we mere humans fit in the grand cosmological landscape; he wants to tell us what the soup tastes like.  Hawking is solely interested in observing and noting the innate splendor of stuff like General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics; he simply wants us to know the ingredients in the soup.

The first few chapters have been a respectful recap of the scientific milestones that came before Hawking, and now I am getting to the good stuff:  his controversial doctoral thesis on Black Holes.  I’m looking forward to this, as I am vaguely familiar with it.

Hawking’s sense of humor only expresses itself infrequently, but is alternately silly and dry when it does.  (Remember, he is English.)  Here is the opening of the book, an anecdote worthy of Monty Python:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But its turtles all the way down!”

Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?

What an absurdly wonderful way to lead us into the world of Charmed Quarks, Glueballs and K-mesons.  Surely this was Terry Pratchett’s inspiration for the bizarre geography of his world in the Discworld series.

Here is a surprisingly snide bit about an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile several fundamental forces.  Hawking seems to be critiquing the scientist’s tendency to name things before actually finding them:

The success of the unification of the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces led to a number of attempts to combine these two forces with the strong nuclear force into what is called a grand unification theory (or GUT). This title is rather an exaggeration: the resultant theories are not all that grand, nor are they fully unified, as they do not include gravity. Nor are they really complete theories…

Shakespeare and the Void
February 27, 2010, 11:42 am
Filed under: Complete Works of Shakespeare

As I made my way through the early histories and the tragedies in the Complete Works of Shakespeare  in the months before starting this project, I’ve also been reading analysis in a couple of Harold Bloom’s books.  While I decided not to count them in the 38, The Western Canon, Invention of the Human, and his audio lectures on the Seven Major Tragedies have greatly enhanced the  experience for me.  Mostly, Bloom has sort of DEMANDED I pay close attention to the text, in the way I should have learned to in drama school – what are the characters saying about each other?  What are they saying about their lives before the play?  Why do we only hear about certain dramatic events second hand, while witnessing others live?  And why does it seem like every situation reminds everyone of a story from Greek mythology?    These questions have helped me to wrap my head around the big question of why these four-hundred year old texts are still around today. 

Maybe the thing that continues to strike us as inconceivably brilliant – and again, a lot of this comes from Bloom’s astute observations, not my own – is that there is a sort of manicured absence at the heart of all of Shakespeare’s major plays.   We can do the diligence with the text and figure out how old Hamlet is, or decipher what all the inside jokes he makes with the Master Player mean, but at the center of Hamlet, like all the major plays, there is an unknowable variable that perhaps catches the ultimate success and magic of what Shakespeare was up to. 

As Bloom points out, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father calls Queen Gertrude “adulterous” enough times to for us to assume that he isn’t just sore about the whole brother-murdering-him-and-then-marrying-his-widow-thing.  Remember: history tells us that SHAKESPEARE HIMSELF probably played the Ghost when Hamlet was first performed, so I’d say this character is pretty on the level on the issue of Gertrude’s fidelity.  Though it is never spelled it out explicitly, we can safely assume that Gertrude and Claudius were having an affair before Claudius murdered King Hamlet.   But what we can never know – and more importantly, what Hamlet can never know – is how long their affair had been going on before the rise of the curtain.  Hamlet was a bright guy, so certainly the notion that Claudius might actually be his biological father had crossed his mind; a train of thought that cannot go unremarked in a play that is largely about Hamlet’s reluctance to take revenge on Claudius.   And yet, Shakespeare almost nonchalantly teases this information, but ultimately chooses to leave this vacuum of motivation at the heart of his most illustrious protagonist.   

Is this vacuum the uncertain place into which we can project ourselves?  Could this void be the mystery that prevents us from ever being done with Hamlet as readers? 

A few more quick Shakespearean conundrums:

Where are MacBeth and Lady MacBeth’s children? Lady M says that she has “given suck,” meaning she has breast fed a baby.  What does this have to do with the MacBeths’ blazing ambition for the throne?  Mind you, this is a play where MacBeth’s major antagonists are strong Scottish men represented mostly by their heirs and robust lineages.

Why is Othello’s new bride Desdomona so obsessed with their wedding sheets?  Considering Othello is sent off to war, like, the day after they got married, Bloom wonders if they even have time to consummate their wedding vows.  If this is the case, how do you think a savage general like Othello would react to hearing that “chaste” Desdomona had let Cassio do her office?  (Iago says something about a “beast with two backs” in reference to Othello and Desdomona, but Iago was a dirty, dirty liar and we shouldn’t trust him.)

What were the Montagues and Capulets fighting about again in Romeo and Juliet?  Here it’s not just a case of us not knowing; it’s a case where our not knowing is crucial for us to connect to the material properly.  If Shakespeare told us what the Capulet/Monague feud was about, he would run the risk that we would empathize with one side over the other.  Since we are never told what all these idiots are fighting about, they become just that: stubborn idiots, stuck in their ways.  Against this backdrop of “ancient grudge,” Romeo and Juliet are like rock and roll, representing something new and brave and romantic that the old folks will never understand.

The odd and apocalyptic King Lear offers at least three holes for us to fill in.  First, in this play all about parents and children, where is Queen Lear?  She is mentioned only once, almost in passing.  Second, what is the connection between Cordelia and the Fool, who never appear at the same time?  Lear often speaks to them in them manner (A playful line about absences, no less: “Nothing will come from nothing”) and at one crucial, tragic point seems to confuse them.* (There is one school of thought that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor.)  Finally, there is a great, but revolutionary narrative chasm in the play – its protagonist, Lear, and its antagonist, Edmund, never so much as acknowledge each other’s existence.      

Torturously, we’ll never know why Shakespeare routinely stitched such nothingness into his plays, but we can take comfort in the fact that he obviously knew what he was doing because they are all brilliant beyond anything we’ve done since.  This is why he is Shakespeare, who can bring all kinds of somethings from nothing, and why we are just us. 

*Yes, I just went out of my way to not spoil the end of a four-hundred year old play.  I am a dork like that.

**PS: You can watch an AWESOME verison of King Lear with Ian McKellen here:

Accidental Tourist Blurb
February 11, 2010, 10:13 am
Filed under: Accidental Tourist

Here is the blurb from the back of The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.  I challenge you to read it without imagining it as the voiceover from the movie trailer for a cheesy, over-produced romantic comedy.

Meet Macon Leary — a travel writer who hates both travel and strangeness.  Grounded by loneliness, comfort, and a somewhat odd domestic life, Macon is about to embark on a surprising new journey.  It’s called love — and it arrived in the unlikely shape of a fuzzy-haired dog-obedience trainer who promises to turn the Accidental Tourist into a happy traveler…

Thankfully, the first three chapters have been far less generic than this banal synopsis suggests.  This is simply an awful blurb, homogenizing every bit of personality and quirk out of Tyler’s novel in hopes of drawing in a larger readership.

February 6, 2010, 10:12 pm
Filed under: Overview | Tags:

Enough is enough. 

For the past ten years or so, I have been steadily accumulating unread books.  Some I buy, some I inherit from old roommates, and some are given to me as gifts; but united, these books and my unending desire for more of them have created an impasse that is uniquely impenetrable.   With each book I add to stack, the likelihood of my reading any of them diminishes.  

What’s even worse is that I have boxed up and hauled this library half a dozen times over the last decade, with each transit increasing in difficulty and, more important, absurdity.  Why should I lug around boxes of books I have never read?  Why do I hold onto these things in the first place?  Am I just a phony, who wants to look like he’s read a lot of books?  That must be part of it – what else would I put on my bookshelves?  I certainly don’t keep them for handy access to information anymore.  In that sense they are totally obsolete, what with the internet and all.  So why?  Am I stocking up for a Burgess Meredith Twilight Zone scenario? 

Here we are in the age of the Kindle, when “Print is dead,” and all our media has iPod-Shuffled off this mortal coaxial – and yet, at least two days out of every week I find myself wandering around the Public Library a few blocks from my office.  Though I rarely check anything out, I often drift from floor to floor in distracted awe, looking at books by the hundreds of thousands.  They are quant old things, these books, and seem suddenly romanticized by what the media assures us is their imminent doom.  Unlike the invisible internet, when you look at bunch of books, you can pretty accurately gauge how much information is potentially bound up in them.  They give breadth to the facts within in a way the internet never could. 

So here I am with all this breadth.  At once tickled and overwhelmed by all of my unread books, I actually counted them the other night.  There are 38.  At first I counted only books I had never read a page of, but then I realized that was a little unfair.  Some of them, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage for instance, are only intended to be used for reference and therefore shouldn’t provoke such guilt.  So, I have cheated a little, swapping in a few doozies that I had started, like The People’s History of the United States and – gulp – The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, but never finished.  There are still 38.  And there is a magnetic energy to that number, not too high to be perversely intimidating (as it would be if it were above 100), yet not too low to seem easily surmountable.  So, rather than let the stack continue to grow, I will read them all and respond to them here – self-righteous blogging being the cultural birthright of any disaffected hipster living in the twenty-first century.   I will also give a little background on where the book came from and what sentimental anecdote has earned it a place in the Montgomery family library. I will not buy a single book until I have finished, nor will I accept any from anyone else.  Even if I see copies of Carl Sagan’s Murmurs from Earth or Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life (both are out of print and have eluded me for years) lying on the side of the road, I will not pick them up. 

Enough is enough.  It’s time to put my bookshelf in order.  Without further ado, here are the eclectic 38 in alphabetical order:                  

  1. The Accidental Tourist, a novel by Anne Tyler
  2. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, a textbook edited by Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Meskin
  3. The Alchemy of Theatre: The Divine Science, a book of essays edited by Robert Viagas
  4. Angels and Demons, a novel by Dan Brown
  5. Being and Time, a philosophy book by Martin Heidegger
  6. The Best American Comics 2007, an anthology edited by Chris Ware
  7. Billions and Billions, an astronomy/philosophy book by Carl Sagan
  8. Blood Curdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, a collection of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft
  9. A Brief History of Time, an astronomy/physics book by Stephen Hawking
  10. Characters and Viewpoints, a writing guide by Orson Scott Card
  11. City of Gold and Lead, a novel by John Christopher
  12. The Claddagh Ring, a history/mythology book by Malachy McCourt
  13. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke
  14. Comet Halley, a science book by Mark LIttmann and Donald K. Yeomans
  15. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
  16. The Cosmic Connection, an astronomy/philosophy book by Carl Sagan
  17. The Elegant Universe, an astronomy/physics book by Brian Greene
  18. Enders Game, a novel by Orson Scott Card
  19. Farmer in the Sky, a novel by Robert Heinlein
  20. Foolscap, a novel by Michael Malone
  21. Here and Now, a writing workbook by Fred Morgan
  22. The Hobbit, a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
  23. Hyperion, a novel by Dan Simmons
  24. Ilium, a novel by Dan Simmons
  25. Modern Drama, an anthology of plays including plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, Brecht, Williams, and Albee
  26. Off-Off Broadway Explosion, a non-fiction book by David A. Crespy
  27. On Writing, a writing guide/memoir by Stephen King
  28. Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained, two epic poems by John Milton
  29. People’s History of the United States, a history book by Howard Zinn
  30. Poetics, a collection of critical essays by Aristotle
  31. The Portable Emerson, a collection of poetry and essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  32. The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy
  33. Selected Poetry and Essays of Samuel Jonson
  34. Songs of a Distant Earth, a novel by Arthur C. Clarke
  35. The Speed of Dark, a novel by Elizabeth Moon
  36. The Tao of Physics, a philosophy/science book by Fritjof Capra
  37. Theatre of the Absurd, a history/theory book by Martin Esslin
  38. Tolkien: Author of the Century, a analysis/biography by Tom Shippey