Crit

Examination, analysis, appreciation.

See, This Is Why I Love Jack Vance

2009.11.18
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IT’S NOT THAT HE RENDERS whole worlds so vividly and so succinctly, peopling vast and history-thick galaxies with one or two spare sentences.

It’s not the cinematic sweep of his prose, which respects his readers’ visual imagination by meeting it halfway; the mad genius of his invention, which conjures up aliens both A*L*I*E*N and logical in the extreme — as well as their customs, currency and literature; nor his subtle command of language and love thereof, of its effect on the listener’s ear as well as his intellect, of conversations as oblique as they are elegant.

Actually, it is all of the above, and more, but what I love most about Jack Vance is his laconic sense of perspective. E.g., from page 65 of the Ace Double edition of The Houses of Iszm, where one character consoles another against the world’s unfairness:

The Szecr sub-commandant twirled his viewer. “The Universe is eight billion years old, the last two billion of which have produced intelligent life. During this time not one hour of absolute equity has prevailed. It should be no surprise to find this basic condition applying to your personal affairs.”

(P. S.: Dying Earth is great, too.)

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R. Crumb, Darshan

2009.11.05
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MOST REVIEWS OF R. CRUMB’S “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” seem astonished that the man who kept us truckin’ through the ’60s could possibly give the Goode Booke such a serious rendering.

But what astonishes me is that Crumb has added yet another level to the endless depth of serious Torah study.

First, about the art: Crumb is one of those Heavy Guys (like Will Eisner and Moebius) whose art defines comics through mastery of the medium and extending its possibilities. His compositions pull the reader into each panel, where subtle figures express humanity unadorned — crankiness and weird smells along with idealism and tenderness. Given this, it’s unsurprising that Crumb chose not to summarize Genesis, but rather to illustrate it.

All of this perfectly suits Crumb for the task of bringing Torah (or at least the first 20 percent of it) to the paneled page. Those unfamiliar with the actual text may be surprised that the key players look so, well, human, and ethnically human at that. Most Bible illustrations tend to imbue them with a phenothiazine-tinged radiance that’s lacking from the original text (as well as uninspiring — after all, if the matriarchs and patriarchs exemplify the religious life, and religious life includes transcendence, then what exactly are these Perfect Beings supposed to transcend?). But Crumb’s figures are heroic despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws. His Abraham looks like the guy next door (if next door is Boro Park), with near-palpable compassion in pleading with God to spare Sodom — as well as incredulity that “the Judge of all the earth [might] not do justly.”

(Of course, I do have one quibble (if I didn’t, as Ann would tell you, it means I wasn’t really into it): as a strict antianthropomorphist, the idea of God-as-angry-grandpa isn’t one I’m eager to embrace. But if Crumb had gone the (Jewishly) theologically correct route and portrayed some approximation of incorporeality, we’d be deprived of the visual thread of who’s made in God’s image (and, in some cases, Eve’s).)

As for the adaptation itself: For thousands of years, Jews have been turning the text over and over, arguing, playing, expanding, wrestling, all to understand and apply it in new and evolving ways. We call this process “midrash,” from the Hebrew root D.R.Sh (dalet, resh, shin) whose meanings include “explain, interpret, seek, inquire.” One who makes midrash is called a “darshan,” and while there are many schools of darshaning (e.g., mystical, homiletical, historical, political, even musical) Crumb seems to have added illustration to the darshan’s tool set; after God kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but before they actually leave, Genesis 3:20 says, “And the man called his wife’s name Eve (Heb. “chava”), because she was mother of all the living (“chai”).” In the text, this verse’s placement seems almost random, but Crumb’s “translation” shows a weeping Eve being held by a gently smiling Adam — as though Adam’s trying to console Eve by telling her that, despite their troubles and the loss of everything they know, it’ll all be okay. What husband wouldn’t do the same in his place?

Torah is more than “just” a history book, legal document, ethical code or ethnic narrative. Likewise, “The Book of Genesis Illustrated” is more than “just” an illustrated text or graphic novel. No modernly-hip Torah nerd should be without it.

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How To Write

2009.06.27
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SUCCINCTLY.

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Journalism As Art Imitating Life

2009.06.23
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CAN WRITERS REPORT? THAT QUESTION nets a “yes” according to Daniel Elstrin in the June 19 Forward, reporting on the day Haaretz (think Israeli NYT) swapped its staff for 31 leading authors and poets:

“Among those articles were gems like the stock market summary, by author Avri Herling. It went like this: ‘Everything’s okay. Everything’s like usual. Yesterday trading ended. Everything’s okay. The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines, dinners are waiting in place… Dow Jones traded steadily and closed with 8,761 points, Nasdaq added 0.9% to a level of 1,860 points…. The guy from the shakshuka [an Israeli egg-and-tomato dish] shop raised his prices again….’ [...]

“News junkies might call this a postmodern farce, but considering that the stock market won’t be soaring anytime soon, and that ‘hot’ is really the only weather forecast there is during Israeli summers, who’s to say these articles aren’t factual?”

This is also the sort of newspaper dreamed of by most, if not all, of my reporterly colleagues, at least at some time or other (usually on deadline day of a slow week). But that’s true in another, non-ironic way: Elstrin also cites a couple of features whose subtle depth make a nice model for would-be human chroniclers.

Peruse:
- Daniel Elstrin’s article
- Ha’aretz Archives; select “10 jun” from the “Previous Edition” menu at lower left.

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Happy Bloomsday!

2009.06.16
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105 YEARS AGO TODAY, LEO Bloom took his famous fictive walk through Dublin seeing the same places and eating the same foods as his latterday followers did, will do or have done today. (Me, I’ll be sitting on the floor with Ulysses and crying in my (virtual) Guinness over my small literary pretenses. Joyce uses the same words as the rest of us (okay, he also invented some, but still) — how does he manage to arrange them so? It’s just not fair, but so is Molly, yes she is yes.)

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Live Long and Kosh — er, Prosper

2009.06.04
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IT’S NOT ALWAYS NEWS WHEN a rabbi writes a book — but when he writes about Vulcans, Ferengi and Klingons, it’s bound to raise at least one fascinated eyebrow (I’m looking at you, Spock).

Rabbi Yonassan Gershom‘s Jewish Themes In Star Trek is exactly what the title says it is. As part of its recent release Rabbi G. has assembled a JTiST portal with more than two dozen links to Trek-related Judaica, from the origin of the Vulcan hand salute to whether or not Ferengi are anti-Semitic stereotypes (he doesn’t think so, and neither do I). He also tackles some of the issues raised by J. J. Abrams’ latest Star Trek film, both Jewish and fannish, and seems to intuit the unspeakable truth of Nerd Religion. Diftor heh smusmah, and mazel tov!

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Invasion of the Sound Creatures

2009.06.03
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TITANIC THINGS ARE LURCHING ABOUT your neighborhood with awful speed and clumsiness — and by the time you finish reading this, you’ll hear them too.

I speak not of the consequences attending long-term medication, nor of some Lovecraftian horror rolling beneath the surface of reality, nor the start of Sonoma‘s tourist season. I speak of the ubiquitous and near-subsonic “swooshhhhhhh-BOOM” which has shouldered aside fanfares and instrumental flourishes in the modern mediasphere.

You’ve heard it. You must have. It can’t be escaped. As the product appears, a bassy “swoooshhhhhhh” as of Cyclopean wings circles the soundscape followed by a deep rumbling “BOOM.” Sometimes it’s just the “BOOM.” Or several in sequence, like an undead Godzilla tipsily shambling toward the theater/iPod/living room.

Or you might not have noticed it during the past terrible ten years; you might have been unwittingly seduced by the infrasonic siren’s call. Seduced into thinking that the product is brilliant. Brilliant enough to swallow every last box-office dollar and make you beg to give it even more.

But no. I am foolish. These … Things won’t bear revelation. They don’t want us to notice, those huge swooshhhing BOOMS with the BOOM and the BOOM and the BOOM and the have a beer commercial. Forget me. In fact, forget you even clicked here.

But don’t forget to listen.

I only wish I could.

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Read This Book

2009.05.31
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THERE IS A Conversation THAT I’ve been having with a friend since we were both in high school, and the initial-cap in that word is due not to the colloquy’s duration but to its content.

Its thesis is simple: that Something Connects All This. Being a spiritual sort of guy, I feel more comfortable describing It in terms not far removed from the religious. Not so my erstwhile colleague and former brother-in-law Ransom Stephens. Ransom’s a physicist by inclination and training — passionately curious about why and how the universe works the way it does — and though we long ago realized that our different takes on the Ultimate Essence stemmed from a subject-not-Object orientation, we’ve never let that get in the way of a good 3 a.m. walk-and-talk.

Not surprisingly, his first novel — The God Patent — deals with those exact issues. As Ransom describes it: “A laid-off engineer trying to rebuild his life gets caught between science and religion in a battle over the origin of the universe and the existence of the soul.” TGP is one of the featured titles on Scribd.com, and clicking on the above link will not only help support a rising Northern California writer but will make it easier for all of those with a book or two in us. Check it out, and tell ‘em Neal sent you.

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Re-Re-RE-Reads

2009.05.27
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SOME BOOKS ARE FINISHED IN a day; others, only when we are.

If books are portable doorways, then stepping into a beloved-since-childhood instant Now every few years can sometimes tell us where we’ve been in the meanwhile. As one of my perennial obsessions is the slippery intersection of awareness and time — e.g., free will[1] as side effect of fore-ignorance[2] — many of my own favored rereads tend to be “quest” stories: people who go in search of something and discover something unimaginably else. Here are five or six:

» Lord of the Rings (trilogy), J. R. R. Tolkien
If you’ve seen the movie, you think you know the story. But if you haven’t read the books, you really really don’t. Tolkien’s words have a different flavor in the mouth than on the page; I recommend reading these aloud, one night at a time, to someone you enjoy. (Takes about a year.) If you can do voice impressions, so much the better.

» The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Space-stranded Gully Foyle was waiting to die until a passing ship ignored his pleas for rescue. His vengeance takes him from the interplanetary gutter to the height of decadent society, but his education elevates him to the next phase of human potential.

» Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass, Lewis Carroll
A chief delight of my 40 years’ acquaintance with Carroll’s endless puzzle has been watching it slowly transform from fairy tale to divine satire. How does he do that?

» Schrodinger’s Cat (trilogy), Robert Anton Wilson
Extrauniversal intrigue among at least three universes next door to this one, all wrapped in a literary Moebius strip. Wilson once offered a quick intelligence test: If the universe is getting bigger and funnier, you’re getting smarter. RAW’s books are for anyone who wants to become smarter — and really, shouldn’t that be everyone?

[1] For the record, I am not smart enough to reckon the “difference” between “free will” and “predestination.” However, I’m fairly sure that it’s my hand — and not God‘s — who’s picking out my socks and entertainment, at least most of the time.

[2] Similar to, but more certain than, “foreknowledge.”

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Why Star Trek Worked — And Lord of the Rings Didn’t

2009.05.14
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THE ONLY THING THAT BUGGED me about the new Star Trek movie — and that only for the first 20 minutes — was that it didn’t look “retro” enough; as though Mr. Abrams’ idea of “early Star Trek” was taken from the first films rather than the original series.

That disappointment was much more fleeting than the one which still accompanies another mythical relandscaping, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Sure, he got a lot right — including the balrog issue — but like many fen I loudly objected to Jackson’s character-monkeying (e.g., the emasculation of Aragorn) and addition of narrative-twisting scenes neither in the book nor appropriate to it. Not because I’m a purist (even though I am); adapting a Beloved Work from text to image, or from older image to newer image, almost always requires sacrifices, edits, and rewrites. And if you’re lucky or good enough to be in such a position you’ll soon split the fan base along love-hate lines depending on whose vision you ruined.

But even though Abrams’ Star Trek employs a couple of revisionist touches in look (2000s sweaty for 1960s antiseptic) and continuity (the planet Vulcan turns out to have been destroyed by time-travelling Romulans before Kirk and Spock can go mano-a-lirpa in “Amok Time”), he didn’t mess with the characters. Kirk, Spock, Uhura, McCoy, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty — they’re played by the next generation (puntended) of actors, but their essential Kirkness, Spockness, et al is intact.

And that contains a lesson for religiospiritual seekers of modern mind and purist bent. I can’t speak for members of other traditional religions who try to balance ancientry with innovation, but Jewish communal organizations have recently been floating a number of well-intentioned “repackaging” initiatives designed to make the old attractive to the new. As Jewish tradition is all about reinterpretation, we have something of a 3,000-year head start on the process. Yet many of these initiatives seem to assume that Judaism can’t speak for itself — that it has to be changed in order to suit 21st Century palates. But at what point, then, does it cease to “be” Judaism?

E. g.: Aragorn a la Jackson. By Tolkien, Aragorn knows exactly who he is: the last son of a line of noble kings trying to restore a united realm and win the hand of his love. By Jackson, he’s just another afraid-of-his-destiny Kevin Costnerism. That may play well in our no-heroes-without-ironic-flaws era. But it’s also inauthentic and dishonest, robbing both character and work of integrity and intended meaning.

An authentic Spock doesn’t need to be played by Leonard Nimoy, or even to have pointed ears — but he does need to struggle with his twin-world identities, just as many Jews do whether they live in the United States, Russia or Iran. Likewise, an authentic adaptation of anything must maintain the source’s integrity — instead of changing it beyond recognition by those who know and love it.

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Bookshelf: Larry Niven

2009.05.07
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ONE NICE THING ABOUT BEING laid up is the chance to reacquaint myself with some old childhood friends; e.g., Larry Niven and his Known Space series.

For those who don’t know, Known Space is a 60-light-year-diameter bubble and a thousand to a billion-plus years of human history. It’s also a pile of novels and short stories written in a breezy 1970s-Southern-California style depicting a leisure-filled vision of cheap space travel, engaging aliens and lifespans in the centuries.

I started reading Larry Niven when I was eight years old. Then, I didn’t understand much beyond the cool spaceships and moving sidewalks. Now, I can appreciate his familiar descriptives (“The beach was a perfect beer-party beach.” “Ever notice how all spaceships are starting to look the same?”), ledes (“It was noon of a hot blue day.” “Then, the planet had no name”) and occasional asides to the reader (“Harry Kane used a word your publisher will probably cut”). I also like how fannish his stories are, filled with references to everything from filk to fanspeak.

But these days I find I’m enjoying his immortals. Cheap longevity, in Niven’s universe, makes philosophers of us all (except for those it makes bored and master-criminally ambitious), and the dialog between those of double- and triple-digit age captures the instant impetuousness of the former and thoughtful wisdom of the latter. At 47, I’m beginning to understand why it takes so long to acquire wisdom (or something that looks like it) — it can take years of repeated exposure to varied but thematic circumstance before a human being begins not to take the Universe personally. Even then, it’s a crapshoot whether or not he’ll learn what else it can teach; until then, it’s difficult to learn anything at all.

But Niven shows us that learning is easy — as well as fun, and occasionally profitable. Here’s to Known Space and the brave souls which it inspires!

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