Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880


Alas! Poor Agnes is Betrayed, and
Dion Proves a Rogue; She Says
He's Read up Meaner Parts
Than His "Arrah
Na Pogue."1

Parnell Spoke in the Emerald Isle
His Land League to Recruit; But
Hungry Erin Only Gave
Him Groans and Bad

Two Ships are Sailing on the Blue,
Sounding with Lead and
Trawl; But the Isthmus
Natives Fear They
Mean to Eat That
Ship Canawl.3

Withdrawl Stiffs, Becoming Old,
Blaine Knows Not How to
Slant4; Bit a Brother-in-
Law's Passed in His
Chips5—Of Course
That Settles


(The Argus, 30 March 1880.)


Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Vs. Film: The Orchid Thief / Adaptation

Continuing in the grand stylings of The Onion AV Club (as previously seen here):

SPOILER WARNING: Book Vs. Film is a column comparing books to the film adaptations they spawn, often discussing them on a plot-point-by-plot-point basis. This column is meant largely for people who’ve already been through one version, and want to know how the other compares. As a result, major, specific spoilers for both versions abound, often including dissection of how they end. Proceed with appropriate caution.

This summer I read The Dangerous World of Butterflies, and the book's promotional material all drew strong ties to Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief. When I ran across the book at a rummage sale, I thought I'd read it for comparison, and I'd already seen Adaptation., the award-winning film based on the book. I didn't get to read Thief until later in the summer, and it became my 'in-between' book, reading in short bursts between starting other books, so I only finished it recently.

Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, starts her book with a description of her titular Orchid Thief, horticulturalist and jack-of-all-trades John Laroche: tall, thin, slouching, handsome, and toothless. Unlike Butterflies, whose chapters bounce from one place to ahoter, Orlean focuses her book around Laroche and his Florida stomping grounds, rather than all things orchidy, so while they both have a foothold on endangered beauty twisted for man's enjoyment, Orlean find a unified theme by sticking to Laroche and his schemes. She first meets Laroche at his trial for orchid poaching, which he defends by having the Seminole Indians, who retain rights to the wildlife in the Fakahatchee swamps, do the actual poaching, hopefully protected by the shield of their legal status. As the book progresses, Orlean delves deeper into Laroche's psyche, unraveling what makes him tick.

In fact, there is one character in the book who appears far, far more than John Laroche. Author Susan Orlean, whether you're counting words or measuring influence, is the star of the book. Laroche comes and goes, his presence and absence each as startling as he is disinterested in the whole story, but Susan Orlean is present throughout. The "new journalism" style of George Plimpton and Hunter Thompson relied heavily on the writer's experience — whether truthful or not, provided the essence remained true — to tell the story. Under New Journalism, the writer wasn't content to research and report, printing interviews in the third person. The writer doesn't just compile statistics and anecdotes of gang culture, they live as a gang member for a month. Orlean doesn't immerse herself to that extent, but when Laroche is at an orchid show, she is there with him, he is speaking to her and she is responding, written in a very fictional style. I also don't doubt Orlean actually did everything in the book, and that personal experience is what makes the book so engaging; the woman at the rummage sale didn't take note of any of the other books I bought, but singled this one out to let me know how good it is: as a book about poaching endangered species, it would barely have resonated with readers as a dry treatise of statistics and third-person description of events. It also smoothly moves in and out of the two styles, adopting a more straightforward journalistic tone when covering the failed Florida swampland developments or the history of orchid collecting.

Laroche's scheme which ends up with him in court, identifying himself as 'the smartest man he knows', is a plan to breed a hardy strain of the Ghost Orchid, a rare and elusive strain of the infinitely-varied orchid line. The plant rarely blooms and is extremely picky in seed germination, which makes them extraordinarily rare and desirable to the obsessed collectors. Laroche intends to breed them, harden them up, and then there won't be a reason to poach them, so everybody wins. Orlean spends the entire book in search of the ghost orchid, including venturing into the dark swamp itself, and ends the book not ever having encountered one. The book is a lesson in desire and passion, both largely unrequited, and the drive in people's hearts to try and satiate those primal drives.

The Orchid Thief ends on that note: Laroche has utterly and completely moved on, opening an online porn business and getting rid of the entirety of his flora projects, while Orlean returns to New York without having attained anything but the heartbreak of missing out on what she never had the chance to experience. This is deeply layered in more than just flower collecting, pressing the orchids between pages in a book of human experience.

To begin...how to start.

I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think.

But I should write something first and reward myself with coffee.

Coffee and a muffin. — Charlie, Adaptation.

It is a very good book, which explains Charlie Kaufman's initial urges to do the story right in his adapted screenplay. The film Adaptation., in turn, presses the book The Orchid Thief between the pages of a screenwriter's notebook. The film points out, very early on, that Orlean's The Orchid Thief lacks the cohesive storyline and logical progression that a movie requires. Film producer Valerie Thomas suggests that Kaufman add a love story, with Orlean and Laroche falling for each other. Kaufman discounts that immediately, saying he doesn't want to add anything artificial to the story to make it fit Hollywood conventions. His adaptation would be true to the book without artificiality.

His twin brother, Donald Kaufman, is the sort of hack writer that Charlie sincerely does not want to become. The two are, clearly, two parts of a Fight Club mirror here, with the antisocial and awkward Charlie needing to learn something about himself from the embodiment of his suppressed self, manifest as Donald. Charlie can't bring himself to start a relationship with the attractive women he meets, while Donald has no problem with the ladies. Donald is social and tells bad jokes; Charlie can barely bring himself to speak in groups. Donald, much to Charlie's chagrin, is writing a formulaic and absurd thriller screenplay where all of the characters are really the same person. It, of course, sells for big bucks, while Charlie struggles to pull his Sisyphean task together.

While The Orchid Thief wraps a book about Florida orchids in the perspective of Orlean's experiences writing the book, Adaptation. is Kaufman's experiences writing the film. Kaufman expertly draws on that theme, making his film about a screenwriter writing about book about a woman writing about writing about an orchid thief. Meta and recursion are where Kaufman (the real one) excels, and the film doesn't miss a beat. Amazingly, much of Kaufman's script is word-for-word from Thief, focusing on the Orlean-Laroche interactions. He covers the high points of the book during his struggles, and by the time he has exhausted the prime thematic elements of The Orchid Thief, his fictional alter-ego has also spent his time learning how to give the book that necessary story arc: add in guns, murder, drugs, sex, car crashes, animal attacks, and a life-changing epiphany. Nicholas Cage plays both Charlie and Donald, and he has a love scene with nearly every woman in the film: Judy Greer, Tilda Swinton, Maggie Gyllenthal, and Meryl Streep. Charlie Kaufman must really owe Cage for something. Every single one, however, is fantasy in Charlie's head, either directly or through Donald, and as the movie moves along, the fantasies appear less in Charlie's head and become more 'real' to the film. The movie finally gives up on the reality of the book at the point where Kaufman gives in and attends a Robert McKee seminar, sending the film spiraling off into absurdity more likely coming from the pen of Donald Kaufman. As the movie draws to a close, Donald dies, but not before giving Charlie his epiphany, appropriate to the book: to love something is a personal thing, and the views of others, even the one loved, is irrelevant. In those last moments of the film, Charlie takes on Donald's characteristics and moves forward, completing his screenplay, admitting his love to a woman, and driving off into the sunset the way any good film should end.

As an adaptation, Adaptation. isn't a very good conversion of the book; I'm sure the film left some of Orlean's fans a bit stumped. But, as the new Where the Wild Things Are film and The Iron Giant have proven, a film adaptation that maximizes the film medium while playing to the original work's strengths is the ideal combination. Kaufman's Adaptation. stands well on its own, even if The Orchid Thief didn't exist, but the grounding in reality forces the viewer to know that nearly every person in the movie is a real person somewhere, but their puppet strings moved by Kaufman, restraining himself at first in deference to verisimilitude, but tugging strings more and more as he needs to make the story happen.

Book Or Film? In this case, the book and the film proceeded down two different paths, which happened to cross one another a curiously large amount of times. Adaptation. is a film of a struggling writer, The Orchid Thief is a book on orchid obsession, and the distinct merits of each are widely separated. Both should be experienced, but with the understanding that there's not a 1-for-1 correlation; I saw the film first and didn't feel I missed anything, although reading the book first does give the film viewing some greater insight.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Acquisitions: The Dakota Maverick

Governor "Wild Bill" Langer was probably the most colorful politician in North Dakota's history once Teddy Roosevelt moved away. Langer notoriously called up the National Guard to prevent himself from being removed from office — he locked the doors, barred the windows, and issued declarations, one of which I've heard sounds a lot like assertion that North Dakota is a sovereign state immune from national laws, which may or may not be true. That's what I'm hoping to learn more about in this book, The Dakota Maverick: the Political life of William Langer. It's not a common book, having been published and printed right here in Fargo, so when I was recently at BDS Books, browsing their North Dakota section, I bought a copy with highlighting inside and missing its dust jacket, because the better copies were all running in the $15 to $30 range. Two weeks later, I'm at the thrift shop and run across the one pictured to the left: clean interior, with dustjacket, seventy-five cents. Oh well, now I've got two, one with the important parts already isolated for me, and one for the bookshelf.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880


Little Streaks of Lightning, Little
Nubs of News, Make the Sleep-
iest Husband Get up
and Peruse.

Little Canuk Councils, Envy in
Their Wigs, Ostracise Our
Cattle, and Like-
wise Our

Little Sailor Alfred Compliments
Our Acts2, Oleomargarine is
Liable to Tax3.

Little Mississippi, Has a Small Cy-
clone, Twenty-Two are
Slaughtered; Num-
ber Hurt Un-

And the Little Minutes, Humble tho'
They be, Bring us Near the
Time of President

U. S. G.

(The Argus, 28 April 1880.)

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It Draws Out The Crazies

At yesterday's signing of X-Factor winner Leona Lewis' new book, one fan got a little too enthusiastic. Identified only as Peter, the fan waited in line to get his book signed, handed his copy to Lewis, then cold cocked her, drawing blood and getting himself arrested. A few months ago, comic artist Alex Pardee was first entertained, then mortified, when a 7-foot-tall mohawked fan cut his own belly open to show Pardee just "how beautiful it could be". When stars of movies and television go out in public, there's a pretty strong sense of security keeping everybody in line, but book signings are often just a guy sitting at a table at the entrance of B Dalton in the mall. A while back I felt sorry for that guy; some local writer, at a card table, watching people walk by, hoping someone will stop and buy a copy of his little stack and ask him to sign it, or at least say they've read it and offer their compliments. Nobody was talking to him either time I passed — which might be a good thing, given the high possibility of violence that might occur in that interaction.

When there's a signing, or an autograph table at a con, or a CD launch party, the world gets turned on its head. Usually, J.K. Rowling is the one putting on the show for you, the lowly reader, but when she sits at the table, patiently waiting for each person to present themselves to her, she's the audience. Most people handle that switcheroo with an appropriate respect, but once in a while you get somebody who decides, "hey, she showed me what she can do and I liked it — now she's see if she likes what I can do." It's not limited to the crazies, though; Rob Lieield is, honestly, one of the crappiest illustrators ever, but you'd expect people to wait respectfully in line as reverent fans to meet him. Not so this guy, who waited in line in order to give Liefeld a gift of a "how to draw comics" book, in hopes that he'll hone his craft before trying to get real work in the industry. Violent, no, maybe a little funny, but insulting and rude for the most part.

In that transposition of presenter and audience, if only as far as realizing who's sitting and whose standing, people get crazy ideas in their heads that they've been given the opportunity to finally have their say. Sorry, that's not the truth: things are still imbalanced in the author's favor, you're there to partake in what the star is giving you. When you head down to SpaceCon 2009 to shake Nichelle Nichols' hand, you're still the audience, don't let the situation fool you — and be happy that the security is better at SpaceCon than down at Barnes and Noble; some crazy shit happens down there when authors and readers get together.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No Rio for Partiers

Censorship always finds odd corners in which to to stick its fingers. A publisher of travel guides has produced several editions of a book touting the essential things to see and do in Rio de Janiero, but they've run afoul of local officials because the books are about how to experience any number of vices when visiting Brazil's finest city. The Brazilian tourism board accused Rio For Partiers of presenting a "false and disrespectful view" of Rio, despite the rather common idea that Rio is better than Vegas for hedonism. Still, enough legal pressure was brought to bear that Brazil ordered the book banned — something the publisher seems more than proud of — although you can still get it in those various countries where the tourists hail from, and on wireless devices like the Kindle.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Jacket Blurbs, 10-9-09

  • "And the point of buying a book isn't just to read it. It's to read it multiple times, write in the margins, curl up in bed with it, refer to it on the spur of the moment, have it on the bookshelf when friends come over so it's the source of conversation or shared interest."MDN, via Metafilter
  • The agreement limits consumer choice in out-of-print books about as much as it limits consumer choice in unicorns." – Google's Sergey Brin on their digitizing deals, via
  • "My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven't read many of them and I never will."Roger Ebert, on owning books.
  • "'If a blogger received enough books,' said Cleland, 'he could open up a used bookstore.' – FTC's Richard Cleland, on disclosure of blogging review copies.
  • "Now, I can guarantee something. As the ability to publish books gets easier, we'll have more 'bad' books than you can shake a stick at." – Hugh McGuire, adding "cloud" to self-publishing to make it more iWeb2.0mbklr
  • "We hope you enjoy it, and, by the way, we hope everything comes out okay for you."Toilet-based marketing, free books touched by other poopers.
  • 'I believe in angels and a divine intervention to write this book,' he said. The book is dedicated to 'the angels who guide us.' – Thomas Ray Crowel, on his book reopening a child's murder case.
  • "At a time when there are other forms that people can buy books in, it becomes more important than ever for the physical book to look really attractive…" – Paul Slovak, Viking, on new books without dustjackets.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Acquisitions: The Secret of the Martian Moons

This is completely a case of buying a book for the sake of the awesome cover. Just look at it: a man in a space-suit is unloading boxes from a tiny, tiny needle-shaped rocket, only seconds away from being beaned in the head by a Martian ninja. Secret of the Martian Moons (sometimes with a prepended "the"), by Donald A Wollheim, claims that by the year 2120 Earth will have a colony on Mars, and the main character, Nelson Parr, was born and raised on the red planet. On his way back after schooling on Earth, the humans are ordered not to return to Mars, but he and his compartriots land on Mars' moons and check out the problem with telescopes. Bring on the mallet-wielding Martians who don't like being watched! The cover art is credited to Alex Schomburg, a golden-age comic book illustrator and prolific sci-fi cover artist. The book itself seems to revert back to the old premise of Mars-centric literature: Martians had been around long before humans, advanced well beyond mankind, but their dying planet defeated them — leaving only the wet canal regions a haven for what little life remained. While I might not be able to get into the book itself, I can at least enjoy Schomburg's excellent cover art.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Grant Poetry: 1880


It's Bad Wid Livers Wake and
Woite, but Dennis Kearney
Has 'em1; He Backed Square
Down in Frisco Town
and Straddled the
Bloody Chasm2

Chicago's Mollies Resoloot, if More
Pigtails They Find, They'll
Murder Every One, and so
They Will, Just in
Their Mind3.

An Indian Scare Up Big Horn Way,
Has Raised the Very Deuce.
The Frightened Folks are
Fleeing to the Valley
of the Goose4.

At Fifty Off He Was, You Bet
Our Favorite Maiden Aunt,
His Father Kept a Leather
Shop, His Name Was

U.S. Grant

(The Argus, 17 March 1880.)

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Review: Do-Over!

Robin Hemley, like most adults, has never been satisfied with his childhood. He made mistakes: he messed up during the school play, he didn't ask out the girl he liked, he didn't try very hard to be a good student, or even really a good person. Like the rest of us, he overcame his childish ways and became an adult — but he continued to be haunted by those failings of childhood. Robin, however, went further than the rest of us: he went back and had "Do-Overs".

In his book, Do-Over!, Robin Hemley documents his attempts to repair the mistakes and errors of the first two decades of his life, starting with Kindergarten, through summer camps (first appearing in New York Magazine) and various other schools, ending at resolving a failed experience as an exchange student in Japan. As his project grows and evolves, his real life hasn't stopped moving, either, and his family changes and grows alongside his back-tracked years.

The book isn't a good study in re-living the past: as it progresses, the Do-Over plan begins to fade, and it develops into a study on how Robin got to where he is today. Having messed up his Christmas play is a well-defined event to try and do-over, but staying at his childhood home and having dinner with his mother's friends amplifies the more personal aspect of revisiting childhood. By the end of the book, when Robin travels to Japan to relive an aborted exchange student school-year, it has lost the aspect of Robin pretending to be a high-school student, replacing the mechanical do-over method with grown-up days hanging out with a long-lost friend, driving around Osaka, and reminiscing with the chain-smoking Japanese head of the exchange program.

Those reflections on Robin's youth are the more intriguing stories in the book, but they lose the momentum of the kindergarten or Christmas play chapters. When Robin is working towards a goal, overcoming the obstacles both internal and external, the reader is remembering their own childhood mistakes and rooting for the underdog Hemley. It is easy to identify with the guy who wasn't the most athletic, or the smartest, or the Cool Kid. You want him to do his lines correctly or to sit with the football clique at lunch, using the benefit of adulthood to accomplish what seemed impossible to a kid. Robin continually re-discovers that childhood isn't, technically, lost in age — he quickly falls into regressive behaviors, unconsciously behaving more like an 11-year-old when living as one than he had expected. As Hemley wanders away from redoing experiences into reliving memories, he has a chance to reflect on what the do-overs mean to him, aside from a goal of replacing a failure with a success.

At its best, the book is The Autobiography of Robin Hemley, written not from memories composed in a past tense, but through the New Journalism lens of his experience physically revisiting what was distantly remembered. The book, however, is pulling in different directions throughout, and doesn't completely get its bearings on where the Do-Over project is headed. This lack of a cohesive destination, whether intended or not, weakens the book, because it's a different experience to cheer for a character beating the odds versus sympathizing with a man who begins by describing himself through the 'glass half-empty' memories of his childhood. Robin says throughout that he repeatedly received positive feedback when explaining his project's conceit, but when the book leaves behind those do-over goals it starts to be about the difference between recalling flawed memories of the past and reflecting on what those experiences make of a man.

Do-Over!, by Robin Hemley
ISBN 978-0-316-02060-2
319 pages, published 2009
Little, Brown and Company

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