Sunday, December 12, 2010

The A Word

Re-posted from facebook.

So, as many of you know, I headed out to LA this past Friday to see the premiere of a documentary that a good friend of mine appeared in. The documentary, entitled The A Word, is a production of Miss Lindsay Ellis, whom some of you may recognize from That Guy With The Glasses. Here's how Friday night went down.

We got to the Norris Theater on the USC campus fairly early and had plenty of time to settle in before the screenings started. Three 20-25 minute films were being shown for the first time that evening, and Lindsay's was scheduled to be screened last.

The first feature was called The Raw Truth. When we had first seen the title on facebook's event page for the premiere, I told Missa (our documentary star) that it was probably related to the raw food movement. Unfortunately, I was right. More unfortunately, many of the documentary's subjects were in the audience, wasted on this or that herbal remedy, and shouting and wooting every time one of their unwashed numbers appeared on the screen. Before the screenings started, we had taken note of the large hippie contingent, observing them take a trip out to the parking lot en masse for "spiritual enhancement" and they passed around several un-labeled brown bottles and a jar of clear liquid amongst themselves in the middle of the theater before the lights went down. Tell me how this works: If raw foodies don't consume anything remotely cooked or warmed over, how did they manage to distill their hippie moonshine? *shrug* In any event, though the movie was more than technically competent, it lacked any kind of engagement to me. The film consisted of a series of interviews with various raw food luminaries, and though some of the food looked good, the conspiracy theorists and militant vegans just generally put me off the whole enterprise. Also: It was narrated by Andy Dick--known coke fiend and newly-converted raw foodie--who apparently caused a scene on campus, but I missed that part.

The second film was a breath of fresh air. Stepping Out? was a funny, personal story centered on the director--Yaminah McKessey--contemplating the possibility of dating a white man as a black woman. The film stayed focused around Yaminah's journal entries and questions while incorporating interviews of other young black women contemplating the same choice, interracial couples at various points in their relationships, and some historical background. I liked the personal focus of the piece, but I was also far more engaged with the subject interviews: Rather than being militant advocates for a specific way of life, they were people living their lives and making their own way. I was particularly impressed by one of the couples--Leigh-Ann and Matt, and their beautiful daughter Simone--who have embraced their multicultural status and have even built up a clothing line inspired by their daughter: the Swirl Syndicate ( I'm probably going to pick up some stuff for Rhys there. Anyway, I felt it struck a good balance of social awareness and humor. I enjoyed it and would love to see it do well. Yaminah said that they would be creating a facebook page soon, so watch out for that.

The third film was from our girl Lindsay. Based on the initial call for contributors, the first images from the production, and the vibe I got from Lindsay and her crew, I was expecting something pretty left-leaning. I'm not exactly sure how I expected the film to function, but I was pleasantly surprised by the production. The film ended up being centered on Lindsay's experience coming to terms with her own abortion (which was only one year ago). The early parts of the film were what someone who has seen Lindsay's work as the Nostalgia Chick might expect: Irreverent and quirky. Scenes of Lindsay holding up plastic pro-life fetus dolls, frolicking with a Jesus impersonator in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, displaying hand-written signs introducing facts and figures. The film begins to look at the issue of abortion generally. This was the part my friend Missa was included in: General interviews with Missa and two other young women who felt generally positive about their experiences. Then, Lindsay interviewed a woman who regretted her abortions: A born-again Christian who had a memorial stone made with names for her four aborted fetuses (feti?), and went with her to an anti-abortion rally.

This is where there was, for me, a tonal shift, and the movie became deeply personal and emotionally challenging. Lindsay introduces the audience to the "baby daddy," Ritvik, and we witness some intimate conversations between the two about what might have been, about the challenges Lindsay faced when she discovered she was pregnant, about how she felt she would have gone through with having the baby if someone in her family had agreed to adopt her. That's the other thing: Lindsay revealed that she was going to have a daughter; that she had thought about names for her.

We follow Lindsay home to Tennessee to talk about her decision with her parents: Her liberal spitfire of a mother and her comparatively conservative soft-spoken father. Lindsay's mother encourages her, assuring her that she made the right decision, that the abortion was her right, and that it was the best thing for her to do. Meanwhile, these scenes are intercut with Lindsay interacting with her father. He doesn't speak most of the time. He sits with Lindsay on a piano bench, playing as Lindsay sings (with a beautiful voice, by the by); he sits in the background watching quietly as Lindsay and her mother speak. He finally speaks as the interviews wrap up, pulling both women into a "group hug" because "it's getting cold."

During this section of the movie was one of the emotional breaking points for me. Lindsay's mom talks about her own abortion when she was nineteen. It's an all-too-common story: She was raped by an acquaintance and never reported it. She was lucky enough to find a doctor who would do the procedure. When she went in for the procedure, the doctor said: "You were raped, weren't you?" Lindsay's mom, surprised, found the courage to admit that, yes, she had been. The doctor replied: "They all are." That moment destroyed me. So many times I've heard similar stories, but this woman trying to convince her daughter that she had done the right thing... a woman who was courageous enough to do what was right for her... to be looked down upon by the one man who could help her... I broke down crying.

The other emotional breaking point was at the anti-abortion rally. After watching the interviewee (the one with the memorial stone) speak to the audience, Lindsay felt motivated to get up and say something. The organizers of the event were clearly afraid to let her speak. (We spoke to the cinematographer, Vincent, afterward, and he asked if we had noticed the camera shake in that scene; One of the organizers tried to get him to stop filming.) After promising to "be respectful," she was allowed to take the stage.

In a shaky voice, eyes moist, but holding back her tears, Lindsay got up in front of the audience--an audience that we have seen holding signs that say "I regret my abortion" and "I regret my lost fatherhood"--and began to speak. It was clear she hadn't planned out her speech, but her words... there's no way I can do them justice. The ending statement was, basically, that this audience may value the lives of the aborted fetuses, but there was no way any of them felt the loss of her daughter the way she did. It was moving, emotionally raw, and tear-inducing.

Overall, it was an amazing experience of a film. I'm a lefty--always have been--and sometimes I find it easy to dismiss the potential emotional fallout that conservatives always harp on as the consequences of abortion, of the reason we should ban the choice. This movie illustrated in a big way the heartbreak that can occur, even if someone has made the right choice for herself. To me, this proved all the more that abortion is a highly personal experience and that no one can impose their views on another, that no one should impose their views on another.

Afterward, Missa, James, and I were sitting outside the theater, recovering, regaining our breath from the experience. We managed to say hello to Vincent, Lindsay, and Nella (out from New York), and were hoping to say hi to Clarinda and Kaveh--the two producers of the project--when a man we hadn't met, but definitely recognized came up to us.

It was Ritvik. He not only appeared in the film with Lindsay, but was an editor on the project. He recognized Missa and asked to give her a hug. Even though we hadn't met him when Lindsay's crew came out (don't need editors to do the filming), he had gone through all the raw footage for the project and had heard her tell her story. (I'll leave her to tell that story in her own words.) He hugged Missa, shook my hand and James', and thanked her for her courage in telling her story. James thanked him for his own courage, both in appearing in the movie and working on the project. Ritvik dismissed the praise, assuring us that "it was all Lindsay."

And that's really what this movie is: all Lindsay. And I think that's a good thing: The project shows how incredibly personal abortion is, the myriad of feelings that come with the experience, the doubts, the fears, the hopes. It's not the end-all statement on the abortion debate because I don't think one end-all statement on the issue is possible. It's another voice, one I haven't seen before, and one that puts the focus where--I, personally--think it should be: On the woman who has to make the choice; the only one who can ethically make the final choice.

I really hope this project can see wider release. If there's anything that can be done to help that endeavor, I'll be sure to help spread the word.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Forever In-Progress Pseudo Novel

Wordle: Untitled

I'm thinking you can guess the main characters' names.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Intriguing Biographies of Semi-Forgotten Women

Intriguing Biographies of Semi-Forgotten Women

For much of my life, I was strictly a fiction-reader. Early on, I privileged stories that came from the imagination and found myself disinterested in non-fiction. I dismissed non-fiction as a whole—including explorations of history, scientific screeds, critical texts, and biographies—stereotyping truth as mundane and boring.

Of course, one lives and learns.

These days, I find myself in a rather inverse position: Non-fiction—and biographies in particular—accounts for many of my recent favorites. I’ve become especially interested in biographies of strong, artistic women, and find it fascinating (and, frankly, scary) that so many of these women have had to undergo such hardships to actualize themselves.

Here are five biographies of fascinating, once-famous women that I recommend.

* * * * * *

Diane Arbus: A Biography
By Patricia Bosworth
W.W. Norton & Company, 2006
ISBN: 9780393326611
400 pages

Diane Arbus was an innovative photographer known for her haunting portraits of figures on the edges of society who are often seen as “freakish”: transsexuals, little people, the mentally ill, circus performers. She pioneered an intimate style that included a squared frame that mimics the frame of early snapshots and specialized lighting that creates a surreal effect. Arbus’ goal was to show the world marginalized members of society, not to portray them as freaks, but to reveal their essential humanity. Arbus once said about her subjects, “I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.”

It took a long time for Arbus to find her creative voice. She started out in the 1940s as a typical housewife, occasionally assisting her husband with his fashion photography. As the decade wore on, they became more of a creative team, and by the time the couple divorced in the late 1960s, she had already come into her own. However, things weren’t easy for Arbus; She suffered clinical depression most of her life, and it was during a severe depressive episode that she finally took her life in 1971.

Patricia Bosworth’s take on Arbus’ life is intriguing, if uneven. Bosworth’s account of Arbus’ childhood is extensive, but details of Arbus’ life post-separation from her husband are fairly scarce. The reader might find this annoying, but Bosworth makes up for the lack of detail by branching out and covering the New York art scene at the time. Though somewhat off-topic, these glimpses into the lives of other famous artists of the time make for fascinating reading. This biography is worth the read not only to learn about Arbus, but to learn about changes in the world—particularly in the world of art—during the women’s liberation movement.

* * * * * *

England’s Mistress: The Infamous Life of Emma Hamilton
By Kate Williams
Ballantine Books, 2006
ISBN: 9780345461940
432 pages

If you think Brangelina is big, wait until you hear about Ematio. Well, they didn’t have the annoyingly mashed-up nickname, but Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson were the scandalous It-couple of 18th century Europe. Though both were married to other people, Emma and Nelson carried on a torrid love affair that resulted in one daughter—Horatia—and one of the first media-fed scandals ever. People loved to hate Emma—a former artist’s model and dancer—copying her style of dress while performing “the Attitudes”—a cross between model’s posing, dancing, and theater that Emma invented—and still finding judgmental words for Emma’s lifestyle, which included living in what amounted to a ménage á trois with Nelson and her husband, Sir William Hamilton.

Nobody could’ve predicted that destitute Amy Lyon—Emma’s birth name—would rise above her humble origins to become one of the most infamous women of her time. After ditching her job as a housemaid, Emma yearned to become an actress, a particularly ignoble profession at the time. Unable to break into conventional acting, she became a dancer and model at the “Temple of Health”—a theatrical exhibition of “the healing powers of electricity.” Essentially: a front for a quack doctor. After being a mistress to several rich British men, she was eventually married to Sir William Hamilton who was willing to overlook her somewhat sordid past. Together, they lived in Naples as Sir William was the British ambassador to the country. She lived the high life in Naples, consorting with the queen and entertaining British tourists with her performances of “the Attitudes.” Eventually, she hooked up with war hero Nelson who came to protect war-threatened Naples and became even more infamous before dying relatively penniless in exile.

England’s Mistress details the sometimes tragic and often sordid events in the life of the woman who came to be known as Emma, Lady Hamilton. Kate Williams primarily sticks to what can be proven about Emma’s life, but occasionally falls into musing prose, particularly in sections concerning the romance between Nelson and Emma. This is a fairly negligible fault though and doesn’t take away from this engaging and intriguing biography.

* * * * * *

Lee Miller: A Life
By Carolyn Burke
University of Chicago Press, 2007
ISBN: 9780226080673
446 pages

Lee Miller didn’t live one life: She packed several lifetimes worth of living into her seventy years on Earth. Miller started her adult life as a theatrical set designer, but accidentally fell into modeling after a chance run-in with Condé Nast. She had a successful career as a model and was featured in several iconic advertising campaigns and magazine covers of the Jazz Age, but she was more than just a pretty face. Her interest in photography—inherited from her father—led her to Paris in 1929 where she quickly fell in with the surrealist crowd, becoming involved with the legendary artist and photographer Man Ray both romantically and artistically. She then became a photographer in her own right, re-discovering the photographic technique of solarization and applying surrealist ideas to landscape photography. During WWII, she reinvented herself as a war correspondent, famously photographing herself taking a bath in Hitler’s tub. After the war, it was homemaking and babies for Miller, who once again reinvented herself as a cook. She died at home in England after a long, simple life on her family farm.

But Miller’s life was hardly filled with sunshine and lollipops. When she was eight years old, she was raped by a family friend, contracting gonorrhea that she would battle with painful, invasive treatments throughout her life. Her father took a very odd approach in helping her deal with her rape: Ongoing nude photo sessions shot by him from Lee’s childhood through her twenties. Suffice it to say, as an adult, Lee had very complicated relationships with men. In addition to Man Ray, she had a tumultuous marriage with Egyptian Aziz Eloui Bey that ended with her becoming pregnant by another man, British surrealist Roland Penrose.

Carolyn Burke does a good job juggling the myriad—and often contradictory—phases of Miller’s life and providing a narrative in which the drastic shifts in her life make sense. She does fall into some speculation, but attempts to back it up with interviews from people who knew Miller. For example, Burke suggests that Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the traumas of her war correspondence work which included liberation of concentration campus and witness firsthand the violence of frontline combat. Burke supports this with the assertions of a family friend who was a child when she knew Miller that suggest Miller suffered from long bouts of depression. Though the assertion is logical, the evidence is fairly flimsy. Burke’s liberties don’t particularly detract from the overall story of Miller’s life, but are worth noting nevertheless.

* * * * * *

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White: The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century
By Paula Uruburu
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
ISBN: 9781594489939
400 pages

The term “crime of the century” is bandied about often enough, but the very public murder of Stanford White with the sordid details that surrounded it was the first to claim the title. Shot in the middle of a crowded rooftop theater—at Madison Square Garden, a building he had designed—White was hardly an innocent victim. Murderer Harry Thaw had obsessed about killing White for a long time, and for many reasons. At the center of the scandal was young Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful artist’s model and actress who was essentially the first pin-up girl; Her picture postcards could be found in any corner store, and her face was as recognizable to the American public as Megan Fox’s might be to the contemporary world. The conflict between White and Thaw centered on Nesbit.

Nesbit’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother, her brother, and herself in abject poverty. As a result, the strikingly beautiful Evelyn was pushed into local artist modeling around Pittsburgh at an early age in order to provide an income for the family. At the age of sixteen, Nesbit moved with her mother to New York to take advantage of the larger artists’ community. She soon became one of the most sought after artist’s models in New York for both painting and photographic work. Striking while the iron was hot, Nesbit’s mom-ager found her work as a chorus girl in addition to her modeling work. It was as a chorus girl that she caught the eye of successful architect Stanford White who took advantage of her mother’s negligence and apparent naïveté to insinuate himself into Nesbit’s life in a most inappropriate way, including allegedly drugging and raping her in his secret sex lair above FAO Schwarz toy store. Once Nesbit was of age, White began to lose interest, and Harry Thaw—a millionaire obsessed with taking down Stanford White and possessing the “pure” Evelyn to spite him—moved in and married the girl. After Nesbit confessed to Thaw the nature of her relationship with White, all hell broke loose.

Paula Uruburu manages to conjure an evocative New York at the turn of the last century, setting the scene of the scandal. She also manages to place Nesbit’s story in the larger context of women’s roles in society without things feeling clichéd or forced. The one detriment of the book in my mind was that its focus was too narrow: The book’s dénouement tries to cover the entirety of Nesbit’s life after the murder over the course of a dozen or so pages, leaving a mostly cursory outline of events. Though Nesbit is at the center of this story, this book is more about a set period in her life than about her altogether.

* * * * * *

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright
By Jean Nathan
Picador, 2005
ISBN: 9780312424923
320 pages

In the late 1950s, a soon-to-be iconic children’s book was published: Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll. The book featured black and white photographs of a blonde be-ponytailed doll who eventually finds friends in two teddy bears. These were Edith, Mr. Bear, and Little Bear, characters that would go on to star in over a dozen more books, all photographed and written by Wright. Since being republished, the book’s depictions of physical discipline have been seen as inappropriate, but many contemporary readers have embraced Wright’s work and have sought out information about her life. The most comprehensive book on Wright so far is Jean Nathan’s The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, which is not without its controversies.

Dare’s family structure was very strange for its time: The daughter of separated parents, she lived with her mother while her brother lived with her estranged father. As a result of her divided family, Dare had an incredibly close relationship with her mother, artist Edie Stevenson Wright. So close that into Dare’s adult life, the two shared the same bed and worked together on artistic collaborations that included nude photographs of Dare. Despite her rather liberal attitude towards nudity, Dare was very guarded in romantic relationships, and though she was engaged to a RAF pilot for a time, it’s believed that she never had a consummated relationship with a man. Highly creative as a fashion designer and photographer, she had a prodigious output of artistic work during her lifetime, but she never seemed to quite get her personal life in order. She became a recluse after her mother’s death and ultimately died relatively alone and forgotten.

Well, according to Jean Nathan, anyway. Controversy arose after Nathan’s book was published when Dare’s executrix and goddaughter Brook Ashley wrote a letter to the NY Times denouncing the book and accusing Nathan of unscrupulous tactics in gathering information for her book. According to Ashley, the striking nude photographs published in Nathan’s book were never meant to be seen by the public and Nathan had taken them under false pretenses. Ashley also challenged Nathan’s assertions that Dare’s relationship with her mother was as unhealthy.

As is the case when trying to capture any person’s life, after someone has died, their true essence can never be captured and transmitted to others. Who knows which version of Dare’s life is the correct one? Or if Nathan and Ashley’s visions of Dare are mutually exclusive? In any event, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll is an entertaining and enthralling read about a fascinating woman.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude
By Gabriel García Márquez, Translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006
(Originally Published in 1967)
ISBN: 9780061120091
448 pages

An ancient archetypal symbol, the Ouroboros represents the inevitability of cyclical return. This is a universal concept, and one we often see it in literature, be it in the form of the sins of the father revisited upon the son or in the Freudian concept of the return of the repressed.

The spectre of the Ouroboros casts a shadow over the proceedings of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A chronicle of the Buendía family’s history over a century, the events of this novel cycle around again and again, presenting a family that is haunted by its past, even in its genesis.

The novel begins with a flashback: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” This introduces the reader immediately to Gabo’s style throughout the novel: Events of the past, present, and future comingle on the page, oftentimes sharing the very same sentence.

Beginning with the character of Colonel Aureliano Buendía also introduces the theme of fate’s inevitability; As the remainder of the chapter shifts back in time to the founding of Macondo—long before the first Aureliano was born—glimpsing his future at the novel’s start implies that history is already written. This idea is underlined by the Buendía family tree printed in the front of most copies of the novel; The reader is essentially given an outline of the novel’s plot with which to follow along. This sentiment of inevitability is later echoed near the end of the novel by the second to last Aureliano’s refrain of “everything is known.”

José Arcadio Buendía is the paterfamilias of both the Buendía clan and the town of Macondo, and he passes on his lonely, haunted legacy to both. José Arcadio ends up fleeing his hometown with his cousin-wife Úrsula in order to escape the ghost of a man he killed out of pride. Both Macondo and the Buendía clan are thus formed in an attempt to escape the past. Unfortunately, they both become defined by their inability to escape the past.

José Arcadio is the first of the Buendías to fall victim to fate. The ghost of the man he killed appears to José Arcadio in Macondo, signaling his descent into madness. Throughout the novel, each of José Arcadio’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on will meet their doomed ends. Macondo—which began as a simple, happy town—becomes a helpless pawn to the desires of national politics and international commerce.

The tie that binds everything together, across generations of change in politics, technology, economy, and all the rest is the inevitability of loneliness. Despite all living together in the family home, each of the Buendias feels an intense and inescapable solitude. Be it the first José Arcadio’s banishment to the backyard in his delirium, Colonel Aureliano Buendía throwing himself into the country’s endless revolutions, Amaranta devoting her life to resenting another’s happiness, or Remedios the Beauty’s disconnection from civilized life, each of the Buendías is utterly isolated despite being entrenched in an endless cycle of recursion. And as the second to last Aureliano discovers near the novel’s end, perhaps that is the way it was always meant to be.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In that sense, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a chronicle of one family’s insanity. This insanity is wrought in carefully-crafted prose that often utilizes imaginative metaphors and playful language that represents the height of magic realism as an artistic movement. Yet, despite its innovations, the novel also evokes an acute sense of the past in its embrace of folklore and realistic depictions of history’s effect on the common man.

If Gabo can be faulted on any front, it is in the depiction of his female characters. Essentially, it is the women of the family that hold it together; They both literally give birth to the next generation and keep the men going through their ministrations. Despite the fact that they provide the skeleton that keeps the family on its feet, the women are largely relegated to the “classic” (i.e. stereotypical) literary roles for women: Fernanda is the bitch, Meme is the victim of patriarchy, Amaranta is the virgin aunt, Santa Sofia de la Piedad is the angel of the hearth, and Petra Cotes is the whore with a heart of gold. The depictions aren’t so blunt and stereotyped, but there isn’t much innovation in their characterizations either.

The two central women of this epic also represent stereotypes, but they nevertheless provide much of the novel’s narrative backbone. Úrsula is the matriarch of the family who does her best to keep everyone together. She is described as small and wrinkled, yet she has the strength to stand up to her sons, nephews, grandchildren, and even husband when necessary. If Úrsula represents a stereotype, it would be that of the “mammie”; She is a fiercely strong woman whose portrayal is vaguely sexless, despite having given birth. She is a delight to read in any of her iterations over the course of the novel, from the young mother determined to make her husband give up his directionless dreams to the older woman charged with raising her grandchildren to the elderly crone who can barely walk who still manages to know everything that is going on in her home despite her blindness. She is representative of that group of women who abides; The men may run off to this adventure or that, but she stands by the hearth, stoking the fires, raising the children, and simply surviving.

In many ways, Pilar Ternera is Úrsula’s opposite: She is the most prolific whore in Macondo who occasionally divines the future from her deck of cards. However, Pilar Ternera also occupies a critical role in the Buendía family. She fathers children with both of Úrsula’s sons, thereby giving birth to the next generation of Buendías for Úrsula to raise. Throughout the novel, Pilar Ternera appears again and again to advise different generations of the Buendía family. She is essentially a sibyl, and a dark reflection of Úrsula. Near the end of the novel, she is revealed to have her own “family” of young whores, again reiterating that she is a “dark mother” and a twisted reflection of the maternity embodied in Úrsula.

Perhaps these central women represent another aspect of the overarching Ouroboros: Pilar Ternera is the darkly sexual, Oedipal version of the mother to Úrsula’s de-sexed, yet nurturing mother. For though the Ouroboros represents eternal return, it is also a grotesque image that illustrates an unsustainable existence.


Albert Einstein Quote


Monday, March 15, 2010

20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts
By Joe Hill, Introduction by Christopher Golden
William Morrow, 2005
ISBN: 9780061147975
336 pages

I must let you know upfront that I am an aficionado of short stories and of ghost stories in particular, so my thoughts on 20th Century Ghosts are definitely colored by that. However, as a devotee of literature in general, I think I’d still end up digging this debut collection from Hill. Encompassing an incredibly wide range of emotions and providing a symphony’s worth of tones, the stories that make up this collection are thought-provoking, heart-rending, and fright-inducing by turns.

This is my first experience with Joe Hill, but I didn’t walk into this book entirely blind. I first heard about Hill through Powell’s (excellent) blog. Hill was favorably compared to Kelly Link—one of my favorite contemporary writers—so onto my “Wish List” this collection went… and stayed, like most things on my “Wish List.” However, I recently encountered the book again during a random stop at Downtowne Books and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick it up.

The collection opens with “Best New Horror,” and though the story overall is excellent, I must admit it worried me. Joe Hill is the pseudonym for Stephen King’s son Joseph Hillstrom King, and “Best New Horror” is very much a story in the key of King. Though this clever story explores the horror genre from the metafictional viewpoint of a horror anthology editor, at its core, this is a conventional horror story with shades of Deliverance, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and King’s own It thrown in. I was worried that Hill’s desire to distance himself from his father’s legacy was all for naught…

Until the very next story; “20th Century Ghost” doesn’t fall even remotely into the horror genre. Though it’s a ghost story, it’s a ghost story in the tradition of Edith Wharton or Daphne du Maurier: upfront about its supernatural subject and using the conceit to tell an intimate narrative as opposed to being played for cheap frights. Nostalgic in tone, this is very much an elegy to an era when going to the movies was an event to be treasured, and one that didn’t empty your wallet for your trouble. This is a sweet story that stands in stark contrast to the collection’s opener. Again though: King himself wrote that sweet little story that turned into Stand By Me; was Hill just hitting his father’s classic notes?

The next story—“Pop Art”—pops that assumption like a finger poke to a child’s oversized Bubble Yum bubble. This is a story in the “new weird” or “kitchen sink magic realism” milieu popularized by writers like Aimee Bender, Judy Budnitz, and—your favorite and mine—Kelly Link. Narrated by a boy whose best friend is inflatable, tonally “Pop Art” might be compared to the boy’s life stories of Michael Chabon, but with the weird touch of Link. Again, it’s a leap in both mood and subject from the previous story, but the display of sheer range in these first three stories are wonderful to behold.

Hill hits many more emotional heights and depths in this fifteen story collection. Though there are many points of reference to established genres, writers, and milieus, Hill brings a fresh perspective to each narrative. For example, the 50s B-movie staple giant bug story “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” becomes a meditation on the awkwardness and alienation of adolescence in Hill’s hands. The folky mid-century feel of “The Widow’s Breakfast” twists a psychological knife in its ending that shifts the story’s perspective in a flash. The abundance of David Lynch imagery that is “My Father’s Mask” grounds its narrator, treating its weirdness as weird rather than matter-of-fact and allowing the reader to try and solve the mystery along with the protagonist.

Hill is at his strongest in his longer pieces that allow the protagonists to develop and inhabit the reader. The thriller “The Black Phone” could easily have been played for the easy fright in the way “Best New Horror” did, but Hill’s willingness to take his time results in a more nuanced kind of horror. “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead”—in which the title character runs into his high school sweetheart while they both work as extras during the filming of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead—could easily have turned into a one-note gag. However, Hill doesn’t rely on his (admittedly ingenious) set-up to make the story; the carefully-crafted characters and subtle plot weave together to make a sweet-yet-sad narrative.

If there’s an over-arching theme to 20th Century Ghosts, it is that we make the old new again by imbuing it with our own experiences and transforming it with our own innovations. Though it is true in some sense that there are no new stories, that statement can be seen as completely false in the light of collections like this one. Despite calling on a century’s worth of inspirations, Hill crafts something innovative and uniquely him with this collection.


Powell’s Blog

Downtowne Book Store

Joe Hill


Welcome to Literature & Water.

This is my web-based experiment in improving both the frequency and quality with which I review the many books I read.

Why “Literature & Water”? Well, not only is this a holdover title from my personal (and too infrequently attended) personal blog, but it represents my personal philosophy and illustrates the sort of strange connections I perceive all around me.

Literature and water have disparate essences, yet they are linked intimately, as well. While water is literally destructive to most literature (be it paper-based or electronically-hosted), water runs richly through literature over time providing settings for Melville, Conrad, and Twain, providing theme for Eliot, Woolf, and Hemingway.

Both literature and water represent life: Water is life-in-Genesis, and literature is life-in-civilization. Most religions and mythologies begin the story of Creation with water, but that tradition exists through the story—the literature—itself.

What you find here will never be as high falutin as this introduction, I assure you.