Saturday, July 31, 2010
After reading the first volume, I described Lisbeth Salander as an updated Clarice Starling. I was wrong--Lisbeth Salander turns out to be Jason Fucking Bourne. Eh, volume two is totally unbelievable. There are simply too many fortuitously timed interventions by characters both familiar and un-. And some of these characters could easily wear skin-tight suits and capes, given their astonishing powers and abilities. That, however, didn't prevent me from burning through 630 pages in two days.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
I sit through the orientation video, filmed circa 1980. There are guys with Kid 'n Play hairstyles in the video, and all the women have shoulder pads and heavy eye shadow.
I get my number and go to the Quiet Room. I'm sitting at a table with a young Orthodox Jew. He and I have matching black shoulder bags full of books. I plop down a French grammar. He drops a leather-bound Talmud in Hebrew. I pull out Colasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Tristram Shandy, a Stieg Larrson novel, and Lapham's Quarterly. He smiles and stacks up Averroes, Gibbon, Dion Fortune on the Qabbalah, and Philip Roth. I wish we weren't in the Quiet Room because I want to talk to him.
The pager comes on and announces some juror numbers. I fumble around for my summons, going through all the pockets of my bag. Nothing! The Jew watches me, a big smile on his face. I check my pockets, I look on the floor. Then I recall throwing away the plastic bag from my Baltimore Sun. Sure enough, when I look in the trash can, my summons is in there. I have to reach in and rummage in the trash to retrieve it. The Jew points at me and holds his stomach in mock laughter, a twinkle in his eye. Then the pager comes on and announces more numbers. He goes through his bag, his pockets, and finally finds his summons after several moments of panicked shuffling inserted between the leaves of the Decline and Fall--right at a passage describing Commodus dispatching gladiators in arena combat. I point at him and put my hand over my mouth in mock laughter. We laugh for real but are shushed by the bailiff.
We are supposed to lunch from noon until 1:45, but at 11:50 we are called to a courtroom. The jury selection commences in earnest. In all the times I've been to jury duty I've never made it this far in the process. There are questions and everyone must state objections or reasons they feel unable to serve. Those with conflicts or problems are brought one-by-one to the front. My friend the Jew is excused. After a couple hours, the jurors grow restless. We've been couped up since 8 in the morning, and it is nearing 2 pm. Finally there are 12 people in the well, and there is still a cushion of two-dozen numbers between the last called and my own. I feel secure that I'm safe today. The defense attorney keeps looking at me, however, turning in her chair. She gestures at me and her client, an enormous African American man with a shaved head and long beard, nods. Despite the fact she has agreed to each juror currently seated, when the judge asks if there are objections to the array the defense attorney says yes, dismissing one by one several white male jurors until I am called down and put in seat number 4. Then the state's attorney and the defense attorney agree that the jury is acceptable. D'oh.
In the deliberation room before the trial there are some rowdy loud ghetto people howling with laughter. It's actually fun sitting in there and swapping stories with them, my fellow jurors. We joke about the fact the clerk was calling names of jurors who didn't respond to numbers. I say the defendent was looking up those names on Facebook as soon as he heard them. One granny has her shoes off and she's got her feet up on the table. Some guy is talking smack about how females ruin everything, and how the city of Baltimore is fucked up because of women mayors. This causes a mild ruckus, with finger-wagging, eye-rolling, and much discussion about whether men or women are the bigger problem. All of us are in shock that we actually got selected for once.
At 4:45 the trial starts. We hear testimony from two police officers who witnessed and apprehended the defendent after he bought drugs. There are a handful of procedural objections. The judge puts on a loud white noise machine when counsel approaches the bench. The police look bemused. The defendent looks surly. The attorneys look like they are 24 or 25. They were born shortly after Law and Order first came on the air. The judge announces suddenly that "this will end a different way," and excuses the jurors from service. I have no idea why.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
So even the most jaded and impervious snob needs occasionally to dabble in the latest explosive NYTimes bestsellerz: I'm guilty here of falling on the bandwagon. And yes, I could nit-pick The Man Who Hates Women: the translation is often clunky, the twists are a bit too twisty and they coalesce too neatly, the cyber-punk heroine is really Clarice Starling updated and given tattoos and hacker chops, the cast of characters is enormous and the family saga at the heart of the story is at times bewilderingly complex, and the genre cliches are too evident despite clever handling--yada, yada, yada.
All you really need to know is I was hooked after 75 pages, I read 524 pages in 1.5 days, and I'm off to Target to buy the next two books today because I can't wait for Amazon to ship them.
Monday, July 26, 2010
As much as I liked Hustle and Flow, I might like Black Snake Moan better. What a brave and interesting performance by Christina Ricci, and a powerful turn by Samuel L. Jackson. Also: Justin Timberlake--who knew? He's a better actor than Brad Pitt.
Hadn't seen this since I was a kid. It's awe-inspiring, and some later Disney films (like Sleeping Beauty) look lame by comparison.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Ms. Stockett tells her history of Baltimore as if she were leading the reader around by the hand, showing the sites and gossiping. I enjoyed it immensely. I had the great pleasure of strolling around Westminster Hall and Burial Grounds the other day, and there were many of the great names mentioned in Stockett's book, including General Sam Smith and E.A. Poe. Today I visited Greenmount Cemetery with Stockett's book in mind and I saw some names familiar from her text as well.
The book came out in 1928, and alas it bears the prejudices of its time (there are some disparaging remarks about "darkies"). Fortunately these are few and far between. Stockett bemoans the destruction of what was left of old Baltimore during the '20s; apparently there was a mania to knock down stately mansions of Howards and Latrobes and Whistlers in order to build "filling stations." I can only imagine how she'd react to later losses around town!
Strangely absent from her tale is John Work Garrett of the B&O Railroad, but his daughter makes an appearance. So too does the brother of Napolean, who married local girl Betsy Patterson, much to the Emperor's chagrin. This is only one of the fascinating and stirring tales she recounts. I never knew Dickens was in Baltimore until reading this book; apparently he was a fan of E.A. Poe, and visited the hospital where Poe and his mother-in-law both died in order to pay his respects to their memories.
Stockett closes her book right up the street from my house, in Druid Hill Park. Apparently in the 1920s there was still a shepherd with sheep roaming around the Park, and deer were plentiful. Those days are gone, but not the use of the Reservoir by "discreet lovers."
Took some time today to roam around Baltimore's answer to Pere Lachaise, the Greenmount Cemetery. There are many notable historic figures, philanthropists, captains of industry, artists, poets, presidential assassins/actors--abd at least one former CIA Director--buried here.
But I didn't go with the intention of finding and seeing anything in particular. I prefer simply wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere, the sculpture, the occasional pleasing views of down town. Aside from the kiln-level heat, it was a rather lovely morning for a stroll amongst Charm City's dearly departed.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I'm a fan of Werner Herzog, and in Harmony Korine's troubling film Herzog gets to ham it up in front of the camera. Typically he does so in his own documentaries, but here he's playing the father of the schizophrenic main character, based on Korine's real-life uncle, and we get to see him "act" in a bit of fiction for a change.
Herzog wears a gas mask and dances to blue grass. He drinks cough syrup from a slipper. He tells his sons they aren't manly enough, and demands they wear his dead wife's dresses. He tells a long story about a talking canary.
But aside from Herzog's playfulness, the film is interestingly shot and quite moving. Despite the shocking violence of the film's opening, Julien is a sympathetic character, trapped in his mania and only occasionally able to interact on the same plane as the other members of his family. The acting is quite good: Ewen Bremner steals the show, and Chloe Sevigny is typically on point.
Monday, July 19, 2010
I've had this book, which I believe was a promo copy I received working at Borders, for more than 16 years. I can tell by the price scrawled inside the front cover that I once considered selling it unread. That would have been a shame, because it's a fine little collection of stories, built upon Maxwell's reminiscences about his childhood and his home town of Lincoln, Illinois.
I like Maxwell's voice because he comes from a time when horse-drawn carriages were the prime mode of transport, and made it far into the space shuttle age; and yet he's no relic. He talks Twain-like of the confounded complexities of folks, and he seems puzzled, surprised, and regretful to find himself near death with so many unresolved questions hanging around.
The stories center sometimes around race, and sometimes around interesting characters from Maxwell's family. Often the stories are propelled by the fact Maxwell will never be able to understand the things he experienced as a child, and there's no one left alive for him to ask about those things.
I like the fact that he admits to trying to put himself to sleep by touring old houses in his mind. I do the exact same thing. It doesn't work.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Sometimes I can get a good 45 minutes of reading in, interrupted only occasionally by the thumping bass of a car stereo passing by, ensconced menacingly by deep tinted windows and set atop tight rims. In the afternoons I can sit sometimes without seeing any non-vehicular movement, aside from the scuttling of a blowing black plastic bag from the Korean-owned market up the street. The proprietor always asks if you want a bag, and bruthas always say "yes," and then they take their soda or tea out the bag right outside the front door and drop the bag on the sidewalk.
Today I was reading short stories by William Maxwell and Tim rolled up shirtless and looking for my neighbor, who mentors some of the troubled youth from the 'hood. I told Tim Mr. E was at church and we chatted a while about the pool up at Dru Hill, and fishing, which is Tim's new passion. He likes to take a rudimentary pole Mr. E gave him down the Harbor, where he catches and releases a variety of small fish with a high tolerance for poisoned water. Tim has one of those hilarious plastic gold grills the kids wear on their upper teeth; his has "Thug" spelled out in ornate cursive, with tiny paste diamonds for highlights. Tim always asks me what I'm reading, and the reasons: "Why you like them books?" Today after the requisite book chat he asked me how I got my biceps, and I showed him how to do different types of pushups on the filthy sidewalk.
About 20 minutes later I was packing up to head inside when Rodney hailed me from across the street. Shirtless like Tim, but a few years older, Rodney is a high-school drop-out with long dreads and crazy tats up and down his chest and arms. He's of a physical type I know from my days at a redneck high school, despite his blackness: he's 6'1", with a size 25 waist but broad ropy Phelpsesque shoulders full of wiry muscle. In my experience these are the guys you least want to fight, despite the fact they look scrawny in shirts, because they have long reach and they pack a whollop. Rodney is trying to get his GRE and he often asks for help with Geometry. Today he wanted some packets or stories about "them days with knights and Fate, when they said Thou and shit." We talked for a while about Fate and what it means and what is interesting about the idea. I don't know that I have anything for him, but I think I might hook him up with the Lloyd Alexander Taran stories or something.
I'm considering a walk down to Artscape today, but the last couple of years I really didn't dig that scene at all (outside of some good live music). The vendors have been less interesting, real "art" is harder to come by, and even the food was less than impressive last year. But Toubab Krewe is playing (for 30 minutes only!) at 3:30; that might be worth the hike.
I read this as part of our intensive week-long analysis of the Great Strike for Expeditionary Learning Institute. It's likely Dr. Stowell's PhD thesis bound up, because it reads like one.
But I'll not knock him. From what I understand, Stowell goes against the grain of a century of historical analysis/interpretation; it's been accepted as obvious that the reason most of the strikers involved in the 1877 crisis were not railroad workers was due to the fact of overwhelming sympathy for their plight amongst the general populations of the affected urban centers. Focusing in on upstate New York cities (Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany), Stowell attempts to prove that common citizens were agitated by the rail lines running through the streets, which were a public nuisance. Citizens who joined strikers in overwhelming numbers had their own grievous bones to pick with railroad companies, regardless of their beliefs re: capital v. labor. Street crossings were often unmarked or unguarded, train whistles blew all hours, trains blasted through city centers at unsafe speeds, cinders caused fires and property damage, soot was a health hazard and a nuisance, and when railroads were fined or required to improve safety they ignored citizens, retailers, and governments alike.
Stowell proves his point with redundancy galore: don't believe railroads through town were a public nuisance? He lists dozens of deaths, dozens of lawsuits, hundreds of complaints, newspaper articles and editorials, stories of horses frightened by locomotives who drug overturned carts through crowded streets, hundreds of limbs lost, children killed playing in the streets, drunks exiting saloons drug along by fast trains, etc. Yeah, it's repetitive, but he's trying to get academia to consider his idea.
I considered it enough to ask the director of the B&O Railroad Museum his thoughts about Stowell's thesis. He thought the idea was weak, and that of course the crowds of citizens were simply sympathetic to the strikers, because the rails did nothing but make their lives better. Perhaps Stowell's argument doesn't apply south of the Mason/Dixon line? Whatever. You would never read this unless you were a fanatic or professionally obligated anyhow.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Homework done, projects done, readings done. Now it's back to slovenly lazing until school starts up in mid-August.
Well, not really. There are many things I have to do. But not so intense at this time.
This morning I was awakened by a strange feeling, and not seconds later there was a loud rumbling and bumping. At first I thought there was a particulary fast City bus blasting past our house, and then I thought "Man, a loaded 18-wheeler must be blowing down Madison Ave," and then I felt the floor and walls rolling a bit and then it was over. Yes, we had a 3.6 earthquake just after 5am in Maryland. Very rare!
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Today we continued experiencing what it's like to be a student in an Expeditionary Learning school. We read more materials regarding the Great Strike of 1877, learning on our own and even using primary sources (letters of John Work Garrett). Yesterday we had a panel of experts present B'more City and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad history. The panel included the director of the B&O Museum, a consultant to all the local City Museums, a history teacher who worked in B'more City for 39 years, and one of the co-authors of The Baltimore Rowhouse. We're exploring many causes of the Great Strike: sociological, economic, and political, and we're going to focus a bit on immigration as well. The end products of our work will be elaborate visual Concept Maps about the causes of the strike and a Poem for Two Voices featuring two POVs of the strike. For our Concept Map I'm drawing a visual of John Work Garrett piloting a roaring steam engine toward a woman bound on the tracks. The woman is chained by shackles labeled: low wages, dangerous working conditions, long hours, economic depression. There are soldiers to one side and striking workers to the other. Let's just say I'm by far the best artist in my group on this project, and I'm by no means an artist.
I'm working with a school principal from Ohio on the poem: we've created a pair of oyster cannery employees, one of whom is a labor agitator, and the other a member of the Maryland Sixth Regiment. At the beginning of the poem they work side-by-side, but each has a different sense of duty once the calamity starts. At the end they'll have to work together again, after the shootings and brick-throwing.
I'm gaining more confidence re: teaching social studies, and the more I hang out with the social studies and history teachers, the more I realize I'm fairly well versed; I need more specific knowledge to fill in some general swaths of understanding, but I think I'll be fine this fall.
Tomorrow we're walking as a group from the Hyatt up to the B&O Museum, and thence to visit some preserved alley houses formerly inhabited by Irish immigrant employees of the railroad. I'm hoping to convince the facilitators to allow us a side trip to Poe's grave, but doubt it will happen. Nobody will be in the mood to walk a bit out of the way in 100 degree heat!
Monday, July 12, 2010
I loathe conferences. I despise "team-building" exercises. I cringe in fear at the mere mention of group work, or sharing out, or brainstorming.
And yet, I've been excited for this conference, because I'm excited about my new job and I want to be ready.
So @ 7:30 this morning I found myself eating a comped breakfast at the Hyatt Regency downtown. I have a room but since I live 2 miles away I'm allowing my roomie to have it all to himself. More than 90% of the participants are from New York, with only four of us from Baltimore and a sprinkling of Jersey, PA, and Ohioans.
We did all the things I typically dread, but for the first time ever at an educational professional development I felt I was learning valuable information. I got to experience the very model I'll be using next year, but from the student perspective. Now I'm jazzed with ideas and curiosity and I want to know how to build such a lesson. I met many cool and brilliant people, and felt priviliged to be a "local" who could offer advice on getting around town and what to see and where to eat to out-of-towners.
Here's how the main segment of the experience went today: We were shown an editorial cartoon from the 1870's or 1880's without context and we were asked to write down what we knew or thought we knew about it in our groups. After, we were provided with a packet of materials including visuals, graphs of figures, advertisements, personal correspondence, and academic articles from the same time frame as the cartoon. We had to each choose two documents and analyse/read/summarize them for our group members, and then write down what we had learned. Then we had to take everything a step further and write a summary statement about the Great Strike of 1877 and its causes. I thought it was fun, and think it will be fun to teach this way as well.
I just got an email from my new boss inviting me to a second institute offered next week in New England, involving science and wildlife experiences and arts integration. Unfortunately I don't think I can make it because of a certification test for middle school history. We'll see. Off now to do homework.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
A recommendation from Shelley via the Comments section, How To Survive in Your Native Land is about teaching in American public schools during the '60s. Apparently not much has changed: Herndon catalogues his frustration with worthless requirements, mandatory curricula, tests which don't measure anything meaningful, insipid and petty bureaucrats, passing fads in educational theory which swamp teachers with new requirements, texts, methods and tests which continue to fail to teach anyone anything. He notes how most teachers blame the kids and how most kids blame the teachers and how this is an untenable situation and that inevitably schools are zones of hopeless re-teaching of the same shit every year to keep kids busy until they grown enough to get the fuck out.
His text is surprisingly salty: he drops f-bombs, his students photograph their tits and dicks in the booth at the mall and then pass the pictures around at school, they smoke weed and torture class room pets. Some of the stuff which happens in his classroom is very familiar to me; so are many of his reactions. I like his analysis of schools as institutions, and his definition of institutions as places which do the exact opposite of their intended purpose: for example, a bank is intended to save your money for you, but they exist only to get you to borrow more money from them at interest. Schools are intended to educate the young, but they spend most of their time doing exactly the opposite, tracking kids and dumbing them down, etc.
Herndon's obviously read Kerouac, and perhaps Rexroth's Autobiographical Novel as well. His Beat mode of storytelling is well-suited to the absurdities he describes.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
I came across Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi in a review in the NYRB; this was more than a year back, and I'm only now getting to it, because my reading habits have moved more heavily to periodicals of late. But that might change because Geoff Dyer's little book excited me to pick up novels again, even though it's less a novel than it is two novellas featuring the same central consciousness/narrator.
Of course when a writer named Geoff creates a narrator named Jeff the reader must suspect that a lot of what happens on the page is actually Geoff--well, of course it is, since he wrote it--but you know what I mean, I hope. At any rate, the first novella is Jeff in Venice. Jeff is a freelance journo who travels around penning 1200 word articles about whatever he's hired to travel around and write about. Jeff goes to the Biennale in Venice on behalf of Kulchur magazine to see art and to interview a famous model whose daughter with a famous artist is releasing a CD. Jeff makes acerbic and witty comments about the art, about the people who attend such events as the Biennale. He does drugs, drinks heavily, only partially fulfills his obligations to his employer, and his POV is not dissimilar to characters out of Brett Easton Ellis or Michel Houllebecq. He becomes more well-rounded and human when he falls in love and has an affair with young Californian. There is much fine description of Venice along the way.
Then Jeff is off to Varanasi, or Benares, and instead of Houllebecq we get Herman Hesse. Jeff has a sort of spiritual crisis and ends up enthralled by the ancient city on the Ganges and its burning pyres of corpses, its landscape and characters out of Bosch, its thieving and contemptuous monkeys. Again, there is wonderful travelogue of the city. And Jeff loses himself and stays far past his intended four days, and perhaps immanetizes the eschaton.
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
A few months back I saw Russian Ark by Aleksandr Sokurov and it blew me away. Now The Sun is available via Netflix, and it's an equally impressive film. We follow Japan's emperor Hirohito as the Americans bomb his cities and his deification is increasingly in doubt. The film is claustrophobic and mysteriously quiet. Hirohito sticks to his schedule despite the unravelling of his world: he studies marine biology, he writes haiku, he tries to understand his fate. Issei Ogata's performance is remarkable. The Sun features one of cinema's greatest dream sequences, itself worth the price of admission.
Compared to Letters from Iwo Jima or The Changeling, Invictus is a light and morally unambiguous tale. But though it follows a fairly standard sports script, Invictus is well-wrought and we get to watch Morgan Freeman inhabit a truly generous and hopeful icon of the late 20th century. His performance is note-worthy, as it nearly always is, but don't ignore Matt Damon's strong turn as the captain of South Africa's Springbok rugby team, enlisted by their new president to give all his country's citizens something to root for.
As far as I'm concerned, Clint Eastwood can continue making films every six months until he's 100 years old, and I will continue to look forward to them.
Thursday, July 01, 2010
Proves conclusively that Michael Chabon is the greatest thing ever to come out of Columbia, Maryland (sorry, Aaron McGruder and Ed Norton). Read it tomorrow, if you haven't already.
A few years back I came across a sound thrashing of Mr. Chabon in the NYRB. The reviewer was dismayed by Chabon's propensity to cram an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture into his novels, and also found his use of elaborate figurative language overwhelming. Strangely, these are the things I find most attractive about Chabon. In fact, the negative review sent me surrying out to buy The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my first Chabon novel.
Kavalier and Clay is a novel about heroes, of the super- and everyday- sort, and their weaknesses. It's also about Golems, Nazis, Prague, the Antarctic, and comic books. It's dark, funny, and magical.