May 30 - All libraries will be closed for Memorial Day.
For years I have been trying to pawn off a favorite book on family, friends and unsuspecting library patrons. Some took the bait, but others looked at the title, raised an eyebrow and said, “Gosh. I really have an awful lot on my plate right now. Maybe next time.”
So, imagine my delight when I saw Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, mentioned in the acknowledgements at the back of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t believe that anyone other than Kimmerer’s publisher, friends, family and me knew about this book. (Okay, I’m exaggerating just a little – Gathering Moss won the John Burroughs Medal for an outstanding book of natural history writing in 2005.) Still, it felt as if Gilbert and I were part of some secret society, a clandestine clique complete with knowing winks and special handshakes.
Kimmerer’s book is a collection of essays about, as the title suggests, moss. I know – it sounds like a real snoozer. But, well-written essay collections are one of my favorite things to read and well-written essay collections about natural history topics are this girl’s idea of heaven on earth. (A disclosure -- I majored in Biology in college, with an emphasis in Botany and a special interest in the bryophytes – those nonvascular oddities of the plant world that include the liverworts, hornworts, and mosses.)
Kimmerer’s book combines not only fascinating explanations of the ecology and lifecycles of various moss species, but weaves in her take on motherhood, the environment and Native American traditions (Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation), as well. She expertly takes what, on the surface seems minute and mundane, and infuses it with universal meaning.
By the way, Gilbert’s book is a winner, too. It’s her first novel in 13 years and from the first page, I was hooked. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional 19th century botanist and explorer who becomes an expert in moss taxonomy and biology. (Another disclosure – while I’m not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s earlier work of nonfiction, The Last American Man about Eustace Conway, a self-proclaimed survival expert, is a personal favorite. The book was a National Book Award finalist in 2002.)
While we’re on the subject of women in science, I must share a recent online discovery. Emily Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the Field Museum in Chicago and as such, hosts an absolutely delightful digital blog called The Brain Scoop. She was recently featured on NPR responding to the sexist comments she’s been receiving on her blog -- more specifically the comments posted by viewers who, shall we say, pay more attention to the messenger than the message. (Honestly though, Emily is smart, perky and cute as a bug, and if I were a guy, I’d want to date her, too!) For a good introduction to Emily and The Brain Scoop check out the video about her favorite science books.
And if you just can’t get enough science news and views, check out the Real Clear Science website and their list of the Top Ten Science Bloggers. You’ll find more time-sucking blogs and websites than mosses have spores.
Some things you want to like more than you do--like the novels of Tolstoy or the administrations of Democratic presidents--but in the end they conspire to disappoint you. Dissatisfaction of this sort is not unlike the sensation of having a phantom limb: you imagine something that reality can’t support and then wonder how you ever imagined it in the first place.
I had a similar experience as I made my way through the acclaimed graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color. I should start by admitting that I’m an infrequent reader (or is it viewer?) of comics. In my limited experience, the most interesting comic book artists are the ones who collaborate with writers. But even as I write this, I realize there are countless exceptions: Robert Crumb, Ivan Brunetti and Alison Bechdel are three that come immediately to mind. But most often, the writing of the best comics cannot compete with the best prose fiction, and if it’s narrative I crave, I’ll sacrifice nifty graphics for a better storyline every time.
A few months back, the film adaptation of Blue is the Warmest Color took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the coveted Palme d’Or Prize. While I haven’t seen the film version, I did lay my hands on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh. It tells the story of two young women, Clementine and Emma, who become lovers. Having been raised in a judgmental environment that eschews homosexuality, Clementine questions her orientation and slowly learns to accept her sexual identity, a process mirrored in the experiences of countless young people the world over.
When Clementine meets the cooler, ineffably hip Emma, it’s classic love-at-first-sight: can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t live without you. The comic also depicts the many instances of homophobia that those coming out must endure: many of Clementine’s classmates, as well as her indignant father, treat her with contempt, and this causes her no small amount of anguish.
What so disappoints me about Blue is the fact that, minus the story of Clementine’s coming out, it is little more than an angsty teenage love story. From the viewpoint of an adult reader, it lacks the ability to surprise. Young woman has questions about her sexuality, check; young woman meets another young woman and falls in love, check; the two young lovers quarrel, check. And so on and so forth.
Maybe the failure of Blue is a failure of marketing: if directed toward a teen audience, it might have greater impact, particularly to those undergoing struggles similar to Clementine’s. Adolescents are forever grappling with questions of identity: sexual identity, cultural or ethnic identity, gender identity. The list goes on and on. Part of transitioning to adulthood is accepting one's identity, and being equally accepting of the identities of others.
As it stands, there is little in Blue that I could rightly call revelatory. It’s two kids in love, trying to make their way in the world. As one who barely survived the graphic novel of his own adolescence, I wish Clementine and Emma all the happiness in the world and send them on their imaginary way. With any luck, Blue will enjoy modest success, but not so much that it demands a sequel.
Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh. Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp, 2013.
A librarian’s wages won’t buy any mansions, but I thought I did okay when in 2008 I found this dump out in Thornton and became a home owner.
Intrigue soon entered my life. Two weeks after moving in, I’m doing yard work when this elderly couple comes by.
After confirming I bought the house, they expressed both surprise and pity. The man fished through his jacket pocket and I waited in expectation of receiving some Werther’s candy.
Then his wife said, “You know this house was built for Don Smaldone.”
As a transplanted Kentuckian, my forte was not Denver's history. “Who’s Donald Smaldone?”
They gaped at me like I’d asked, “Who’s Jesus?” or “Who’s Todd Helton?”
The man cleared his throat and said, “The Don.”
After a few seconds, I realized he meant some sort of mafia character. I almost laughed in his face. What pathetic Godfather would live in my crappy home? If you crossed him, did you find a decapitated guinea pig in your bed?
This must be a joke.
But later, a second, somewhat younger neighbor told me that as a boy he played inside the house with the Don’s children. He said there were always rumors of money hidden within the walls. (Come winter, I discovered there was nothing hidden in the walls. This unfortunately included insulation).
I decided to investigate. Over the years, whenever patrons asked me how to research the history of their home, I blithely told them to go the County Assessor’s Office. Patrons following this advice probably burned me in effigy later, because home research actually is pretty challenging. My house was built in 1952 and the earliest digitized records at the Adams County Assessor’s Office began in the mid-1970s, forcing me to delve through these massive grantor-grantee books. Two hours later I’d learned all kinds of neat stuff, but none of it had anything to do with my house. It was as if my property never existed. This both frustrated and fillibiated me. Could the story be true? Was my house built for a mafia Don and somehow kept off the records?
Or was I just a bad researcher?
Other resources yielded no clues. Then I thought of History Detectives, that PBS show featuring people with small historical mysteries on their hands. Wouldn’t my house be a good candidate? I wrote them an email to explain my story.
But I just couldn’t send it. I realized I was in love with the possibility my house had been built for a mafia Don. Confirming it would be awesome. But what if it was easily debunked? What if the story was as leaky as the roof? I decided to pretend the tale was true. This was simple enough—from romance to religion, I’ve been a professional pretender for years. Now I'm building on the mystery. I’m remodeling my house and turning the den into a crime memorabilia room. All my future Halloween parties will be gangster themed. You’re looking at one contented guy. It's like Josh Groban says: “You have everything you need--if you just believe.”
People of a certain age cannot help but love Robert Redford. Like many others, I first encountered him in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), alongside the equally entrancing Paul Newman. Ever the impresario, Redford segued from leading man to director to founder of the Sundance Institute, which holds an annual film festival that has grown into something of a prestige event for emerging and established filmmakers.
Every once in a while, Redford still takes on an acting role, and this past weekend, I was eager to see him star in The Company You Keep (2012), based on the novel by Neil Gordon. For me, the film’s title is telling, because Redford is only a small part of the film’s appeal. The cast consists of a veritable who’s-who of accomplished actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Nick Nolte and Chris Cooper. With all of that world-class talent, the movie can’t possibly suck, I thought to myself.
The first ninety minutes are promising. Redford stars as Jim Grant, an Albany lawyer whose true identity as a fugitive member of the Weather Underground—and if you’re old enough to know Redford, you don’t need a history lesson on the Weathermen—is exposed by a newspaper reporter played by Shia LeBeouf, who looks less like a journalist and more like he should be worrying about who to take to junior prom. For those who object to my characterization of young Shia, I have but one word: Transformers.
Once uncovered, Redford’s character goes on the lam. Having spent thirty years as a fugitive, he stays one step ahead of the feds, who seem forever on the verge of nabbing their man, only to be outsmarted by wily Sundance. Everything proceeds swimmingly until the screenwriters get lost on their way to the ending. It’s almost like they made aesthetic choices that they couldn’t retract, and decided that rather than backtracking, they’d just press on to the end. You know, like the Donner Party.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending of The Company You Keep requires some suspension of disbelief. I’m hard-pressed to think that other members of the cast didn’t have the same reservations about the script as I did, but maybe that’s the Power of Bob. You’ve certainly arrived when actors of note will drop whatever they’re doing to act in a mediocre film with you. Just ask Woody Allen.
The saddest part of this film is that it’s easy to see how it might have been good. A plot twist here, a meaningful supporting role there. But this one’s in the can, and as much as we might like to, there’s no taking it back. If indeed we’re judged by the company we keep, then a great cast was diminished by devoting their considerable talents to something that didn’t measure up. When one person makes a bad choice, it’s poor judgment; but when a whole group does it, you suspect there’s something in the water.
In Hollywood, the best way to wash off the stink of a bad film is to make a great one. And while I don’t doubt that Redford still has the capacity to do great work, I hope he has the good sense to invite back the cast of The Company You Keep, so that those who shared in his mistakes can also bask in his glory. But maybe I should be more magnanimous: after all, nobody’s perfect. But when choosing scripts, I think it’s good to ask yourself: what would Sundance do?
The Company You Keep. (2012). Starring Robert Redford, Shia LeBeouf, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, et al. Rated R.
*Photo of Robert Redford by Jemal Countess, cc2012.
To my mind, the greatest ninety seconds in the history of recited poetry happened in 1986. The film was Back to School, the actor was Rodney Dangerfield, and the poem was Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."
Watch it and tremble in awe.
Of course, Rodney doesn't quite recite the whole poem, and his performance is helped by some soaring background music. Regardless, watching this scene as a teenager, I thought, Now this is what poetry's all about!
I was, in a word, stoked.
Subsequent opportunities to attend actual poetry readings never lived up to that magical moment. This devastated and frustrated me. I ventured to coffee houses at the ends of the Earth, hoping to duplicate that elusive experience. I would not go gentle into that good night. I would rage, rage against hearing poets performing badly.
Then after attending a few more lousy readings, I said to hell with it and turned my passions to bar trivia.
Still, I've never really lost my interest in hearing writers read their work. For instance, I just listened to Stephen King read some excerpts from Doctor Sleep a few weeks ago in Boulder. I've also heard Ray Bradbury, John Irving and John Updike. All of them were competent readers.
But Rodney Dangerfield's recitation still beats them all. Sorry. I've even found a recording of Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." This excited me. If anyone could do the poem justice, it was surely the man who wrote it. And while he does a good job, even Thomas can't top Dangerfield's performance. I realize true poetry lovers are rolling their eyes right now, but I'm just being frank and fillibial with you about my tastes.
There are many places to find recordings of famous writers reading, but an especially intriguing one is Open Culture, which bills itself as providing access to the best free media resources on the web, including lectures, textbooks, movies and audiobooks. That's all impressive and worth your time exploring, but I gravitated to a section called Great Readings. This eclectic catalog of streaming audio includes T.S. Eliot reading The Waste Land, James Joyce reading from Ulysses, Hemingway and Faulkner reading stories for the radio, and various other oddities.
After listening for an hour, I pretty much concluded what I already knew: Rodney Dangerfield remains the supreme oral interpreter of Western literature. I mean some of these recordings leave no room for doubt. T.S. Eliot sounds like he's on the brink of death; Hemingway's halting voice makes it seem like he's translating his material live from Morse Code; and Flannery O'Connor reminded me of how my grandma might sound if she was doing a Clarice Starling impression.
Now I know at this point, most of you agree with me. How couldn't you? But a minority must be saying, "This guy needs to go back to school."
Well the joke's on you.
I never went to school at all.