Link of Literacy: Bookshelf Porn

August 26, 2010

While I’ve lived in a variety of apartments over the last seven years, they are united in that for all of them the predominating factor has been the careful placement of a bookshelf. Be they an eight-foot scrap wood behemoth constructed by a crazy ex-librarian, a smoothly polished IKEA GREVBÄCK unit or a series of modular plastic shelves, a bookshelf – in my estimation – is what makes an apartment an apartment. It’s a sign a place is lived in, a checklist of what its resident cares about and what they’ve occupied their minds with.

For those who share my appreciation – and for those who enjoyed my Librophiliac Love Letter link from last year – you can bask in the literate glory that is Bookshelf Porn. The site collects a collage of bookshelf images, running the gamut of shelves and collections. Some merely arrange stacks of books into interesting and colorful formations, some of them are piled so high it’s clear that the owner has been there for years and some of them bear an aesthetic that looks as if the building has been constructed around the shelves.

Anyone can take a picture of their bookshelf of course – or just stop by the local store with a digital camera – but the photos at Bookshelf Porn are ones that trigger the right appreciative switch on my head. Partly it’s the variety, the artistic use of light and shadow several of the photos take, but mostly it’s the overwhelming sense of completion that always comes to me when I’m wandering through a library and which these photos manage to capture for one eternal second.

Inserted into this post are just a few of the very fine images that have been submitted to Bookshelf Porn, which I hope you’ll use as an entry point to their site. Peruse through them and pick yourself out a new desktop background, sign up for their Twitter feed to know when a new shelf is featured, or let them inspire you to drop a good chunk of your next paycheck on building your own.

Les Chappell is currently weighing the merits of moving from his existing apartment simply because there is no room to place a second shelf. Suggestions for how to make the most use of existing space are welcomed at lmchappell@gmail.com, or through Twitter at http://twitter.com/lesismore9o9.

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Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 2)

August 10, 2010

(Editor’s Note: We now bring you to the second part of this analysis, up earlier than expected thanks to the completely addictive nature of “Justified’s” first season and the brisk pace at which Elmore Leonard novels can be read. Once again, spoilers abound for both the season and the related books, so if either bothers you accept a transfer to Harlan County and get caught up first.)

Unless you’re a referee at a limbo convention who’s been paid off to make sure all the contestants win, it’s probably advisable to avoid setting the bar too high. As I mentioned in the first half of this series, the pilot episode of “Justified,” centered around the exploits of Elmore Leonard’s Stetson-wearing U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, did just that thanks to its incredibly strong source material of “Fire in the Hole.” Adapting the original’s plot and dialogue almost verbatim, show creator Graham Yost and lead actor Timothy Olyphant created one of the best pilots I’d seen in recent memory – my gauge for that being an episode of a show where, if we had nothing else, I’d still be satisfied.

But since the pilot saw that short story through to the end, it raised the question of whether or not the show would be able to keep that momentum going, despite having two other Raylan novels (1993’s “Pronto” and 1995’s “Riding the Rap”) to draw from. It’s always a tightrope effort for a film/TV writer to move away from source material and make the characters their own, and the video stores are littered with adaptations that failed as a result of this. After having seen the full first season however, I can safely mark “Justified” in the victor’s category, with a season that picked the best parts from Leonard’s remaining novels and manages to tell its story in a way that feels like a natural extension – and funnily enough, gets better the more its plot becomes independent from Leonard.

As we get started, I must admit that my plans for this piece were derailed early on: my original intention was to read both novels at the same time I watched new episodes, comparing how they matched in terms of voice and story. I could do the former but not the latter however, as the novels predate the events of “Fire in the Hole” by following Raylan as a U.S. Marshal in Miami, rather than post-Kentucky reassignment (“Pronto” actually ends with the shooting that forms the pilot’s opening scene). If the show wanted to adapt either verbatim, they would have to take the form of flashbacks, and spending that much time on past events can be a death knell for a show just starting out.

But while neither novel can be used chronologically as the structure for a season (and are both admittedly weak when compared to “Fire in the Hole”) each novel contains multiple interesting moments in Raylan’s life, and Yost and company decided to use their framework in the show’s early episodes. The third episode “Fixer” heavily adapts the plot of “Riding the Rap,” where a pair of mismatched convicts kidnap a loan shark for ransom and Givens finds himself unwillingly responsible for the man’s safety. Next week’s episode “Long in the Tooth” adopts “Pronto’s” plot of a fugitive criminal – and former prisoner of Raylan’s who gave him the slip – in the crosshairs of his dangerous employers and once again trying to duck Raylan in pursuit of his duties.

Both these episodes and the second episode “Riverbrook” have more of an episodic feel rather than a serialized one, and consequently do come across as much weaker than the pilot. Most of the supporting cast is largely off to the side in favor of sending Raylan on some adventure, and after the thrilling climax of “Fire in the Hole” they almost feel like decompression. Additionally, while the pilot filmed in Philadelphia the rest of the season was filmed in Los Angeles, and early episodes don’t even seem to be trying to simulate Kentucky. The show would later find dependable wooded areas and battered offices to set its action in, but “Justified” sacrifices the opportunity for the setting to be a character as New Jersey was in “The Sopranos” and Albuquerque is in “Breaking Bad.”

But while the episodes feel a little rocky to start off, they are redeemed by the fact that they raid the best scenes from the novels. “Riverbrook” opens with a vignette from “Riding the Rap” where Raylan escorts one of the skinheads arrested in the pilot to jail by himself, and the conflict and conversation that result go a long way to showing how in control of a situation Raylan is. Juicy gunfights come from each book with “Pronto’s” shootout with Italian mafiosi applied to two cartel hitmen looking to collect a contract on Raylan, and “Fixer” taking “Riding the Rap’s” practice face-off between two gangsters that quickly turns bloody. Both scenes are not only thrilling, but also betray how seriously these gangsters take their images, a recurring theme in Leonard books.

After these three episodes burn through the Raylan source material, Yost’s writing team moves back to the central plot of Raylan dealing with old ghosts in Kentucky. His old coal-mining partner Boyd Crowder has survived Raylan’s shot to the chest and supposedly found religion, a conversion even Raylan can’t determine the sincerity of. His old crush Ava isn’t too young for him anymore, and his ex-wife Winona has a new husband making some very bad decisions. And the shooting of Miami cartel enforcer Tommy Bucks, while justified in his moral code, has also earned him the ire of some very powerful and connected people.

And the more these stories take hold – using these threads as the impetus for both A-stories as well as a few sideplots – the better the show gets. The stories it tells are not only tied in with the development of its main characters (Raylan, Ava and Boyd) but also contain a solid balance of action scenes and banter to ensure boredom rarely if ever occurs. Not enough credit can be given to the show’s writers for this – all of them apparently wear bracelets inscribed with the letters “WWED” (for “What Would Elmore Do?”) to guide them through writer’s block, and it shows. One review of the episode “The Hammer” went so far as to say they have “the Leonard voice down cold.” It challenged readers to make a difference between Leonard’s books and the work of show writers like Fred Golan and Chris Provenzano, and I’d have a hard time making that decision myself.

And as with the pilot, the lines of Raylan remain strong because they have Timothy Olyphant to deliver them. I cited in my review of the pilot his “undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat,” and the longer the show goes on the more it feels no one else could or should play this character. In both “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” there was a sense that Raylan was underestimated by others but always in control of the situation, and Olyphant holds both sides of the character – able to chat disarmingly with a suspect in one scene, and then slam their head against the table a minute later. (I’m even able to forgive his not using a revolver as he’s so good in his gunfights – plus a semiautomatic was his weapon of choice in both original novels.)

Recognizing how well Olyphant does with Raylan as a character, Yost and the other show writers made the smart choice to play to Olyphant’s strengths and give the character a Seth Bullock-esque tightly focused anger. His anger has many targets, but the most obvious is his father Arlo (a fantastic Raymond J. Barry), a weathered amoral crook who raised Raylan with the back of his hand. My original hypothesis that Raylan would be a man more in conflict with his code was proven incorrect, as he remains committed to his “Old West lawman” image but seems to use it more as guidelines to keep his anger in check – unless he needs to blow off some steam in a bar fight, in which case he takes his hat off.

And in another debt the show owes to Leonard, the show remains consistently voiced when the camera moves off of Olyphant. In my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter” I postulated that one of the reasons its sideplots and supporting characters are so weak in comparison to Michael C. Hall is because its source material is written in first-person, and it’s rather difficult to extrapolate new characters from that. Leonard’s novels on the other hand are written in third-person, and regularly switch between the protagonists and antagonists in a move that enhances both the character traits and the flow of the story.

As such, “Justified” is able to bring in a strong stable of guest stars actors from week to week, ranging from M.C. Gainey as a boisterous local crime lord to Stephen Root as an eccentric judge to Jere Burns as a sadistic hitman. It’s also drawn heavily on Olyphant’s fellow “Deadwood” veterans, with W. Earl Brown as a dangerous convict in a stand-off with Raylan and Sean Bridges as an ex-con with a desperate plan to provide for his family. With few exceptions, these character actors play their roles with a Leonard-esque zeal, armed with clever lines and an almost theatrical flair to their actions.

When it comes to the original characters from the story, no character has been given such an expanded life as Raylan’s old coal mining buddy Boyd Crowder. I completely rescind my comment that Walton Goggins’ perfomance brought Boyd “somewhat less compellingly” to life, because the conviction Goggins applies to Boyd more than makes up for the differences in background and appearance. Boyd’s born-again arc takes the book version’s modified Christianity into fierce moralism that neither the viewer nor Raylan can be sure if it’s real, and he and Raylan continue to hold an adversarial respect that leads to some wonderful dialogue, particularly as Raylan circles Boyd trying to put him in prison.

And other than Goggins, the recurring cast continues to deliver performances that blend seamlessly with their original versions. Nick Searcy as Raylan’s boss and old Academy training partner Art Mullen has the air of “a big, comfortable man with a quiet way of speaking” that “Fire in the Hole” described, but also shows the frayed patience that anyone would have after more than a few escapades with Raylan. Carter continues the fine work she established in the pilot as Ava Crowder, still a strong and stubborn woman who’s attracted to Raylan for a variety of reasons, and not afraid to defend herself with a sawed-off shotgun.

In the world of characters who Leonard didn’t take as much time with, Natalie Zea is quite capable as Raylan’s ex-wife Winona, an unseen character in all the books but who keeps Leonard’s description of talking “always a little smart-alecky.” While the show leaves out the two sons he had with her in the book, it does keep the plot thread that she left him for the realtor selling their house – a plot point that builds to an excellent mid-season episode “Hatless.” Other minor characters are less well-served, as despite regular credits Erica Tazel and Jacob Pitts as fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks and Tim Gutterson are nonentities after the first four episodes, yielding their screen time to the various guest stars.

“Justified” has already been renewed for a second season on FX, and while I don’t plan to write a new installment for that season I will certainly be tuning in. Yost and Olyphant and company have pulled off the rare feat of taking an author’s character and giving them an even better world to play in, raiding all the right pieces of the source material and taking the story in a new and interesting direction. Leonard has mentioned that at some point he might come back to the character of Raylan Givens in a new story or novel, and if he does it’s almost certain he’ll be hearing Olyphant’s voice as he writes.

Extra Credit: Want to know how Elmore Leonard feels about “Justified?” Check out these interviews and also an essay on where Raylan Givens came from.


Splendid American: A Eulogy for Harvey Pekar

August 6, 2010

Harvey Pekar at the 2005 Midwest Book Festival, autographing our correspondent's copy of "The Quitter."

When the word “writer” is spoken, it tends to call up a variety of traditional images. Some of us go for the romanticized image held by a young William S. Burroughs, where “writers are rich and famous… they lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit.” Others may think of the traditional academic with pipe and tweed jacket, while others visualize the adrenaline-jacked free association writer banging at the typewriter until the fingers start to bleed a bit. I doubt anyone’s first thought for the term would be a grouchy, balding, Cleveland native who spent the majority of his life working in a Veterans Affairs hospital and obsessed over the worst-case scenarios in every drive to the store.

But there’s one such person whom I’d call a true writer over many other candidates, and one such person whom the literary world tragically lost last month. Harvey Pekar, an career file clerk and the creator of the “American Splendor” comic series, passed away at his home in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 70. The cause of death is still unknown, but as anyone who read his comics knew he was no stranger to health problems: at various times over the last few years he suffered from lymphoma, prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and severe depression.

(Update 10/26/10: The coroner who conducted Pekar’s autopsy has since reported that Pekar’s cause of death was “an accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion,” better known as Prozac and Wellbutrin. Pekar had been taking both drugs at the time of his death.)

And readers knew all the details about not just Pekar’s health, but his financial issues, his marriages and a hundred other details about his life and surroundings. In a 35-year career Pekar became one of the most predominant autobiographical writers working in the comic medium – or any written medium, for that matter – by delving into his everyday life and the lives of those surrounding him, rather than superheroes or otherworldly situations. From the simple idea of making comics about the mundane, Pekar went on to a career that paid little but turned him into a figure as important to comics as Stan Lee or Alan Moore, someone whom a legion of writers owes without even knowing it.

“Well, let’s get this thing going. I’m Harvey Pekar, author and protagonist of this autobiographical comic story. Maybe you’ve read some of my gloomy stories here before. They appeal to people who are miserable and love company. I think if you feel rotten most of the time by a certain age, you’re always gonna feel lousy – your glass is always gonna be half empty. I don’t have it any worse than a lot of people, but I pity myself more. What else can I do? I can’t depend on them to pity me. Anyway, I look at it this way – anything that doesn’t kill me could be the basis of one of my stories.”

– Harvey Pekar, “Payback” (2000)

Pekar, who was introduced into the world of underground comics through a friendship with R. Crumb, approached it with an attitude that was unique at the time – looking past the basic framework of comics as “funny pages” or telling bombastic superhero stories. Living an unsatisfying life in decaying Cleveland neighborhoods and working as a file clerk for the VA, Pekar was understandably looking for some outlet for the everyday annoyances that beset him. Waiting in line behind elderly Jewish ladies, the endless monotony of a depressing office job, selling second-hand pop records to support his jazz collection – these stories seemed not only more real than mainstream comics but more interesting to Pekar, and he thought the comic layout could carry those stories.

And Pekar managed not only to carry these stories, but make them “mundane bordering on exotic” as Crumb would later say. The issues of “American Splendor” had an almost epic feel to them in many ways, as he hustled his way through each day he struggled to get up for in the mornings. He was fighting little battles – turf wars between VA departments, better deals on repairs to his car, getting the right groceries for his wife – and readers were caught up in the “lose many, win some” attitude that kept him plugging away day after day. Thanks to collaboration with a broad range of artists – Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, Joe Sacco and Dean Haspiel to name a few – the stories also had a varied appearance and proved comic panels could be dynamic without action scenes.

“Underground comics had already proved that comics could appeal to adults. They were as good an art form as any that existed. Comics are words and pictures – you can do anything with words and pictures. So I thought, why couldn’t I write about everyday quotidian subjects in comics? Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs? We’re as interesting and funny as everyone else.”

– Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

The stories he chronicled were interesting and funny, but they wouldn’t have been so without Pekar’s keen ear in capturing the personalities of the people he portrayed. His “genuine nerd” coworker Toby Radloff, his third wife Joyce Brabner or his inimitable boss Mr. Boats – they were people who were genuine characters, and he made them seem real without being caricatures. This likely has to do with the fact that Pekar began his writing career in his teens as a jazz critic, and his fascination – one which he and many others would call obsession – with the way the music worked no doubt shaped his ability to listen to other people and get a feel for their dialect and mannerisms.

Not only did this background help him write, but it also led to further expansion of comic storytelling. Many “American Splendor” highlights came when Pekar spent his time talking about topics that interested him, be they improvisation of obscure jazz musicians or Russian experimental authors or a life-long resident’s view on why Cleveland’s rebirth post Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a joke. Pekar wasn’t just lucky to be hearing what he heard, his was a cunning and critical mind that knew what it was talking about, and the strength of his intellect both strengthened the stories he told and added to readers’ regret he couldn’t earn a better life. (As a side note, I lived in Cleveland for three years during my childhood, and my own grim memories of that time certainly back up Pekar’s observations.)

But while the intellect driving Pekar’s work was exceptional, it paled next to the undeniable honestly he wrote about his life. Although he occasionally used pseudonyms like Jack or Herschel for his main character, the comics never hid that he was writing about himself – and in the most unflattering light. In stories he was cheap to the point of miserly, drove away wives and girlfriends with his complaining, and dwelled heavily on being alone and bored over the weekends. The words “curmudgeon” and “misanthrope” were attributed in virtually every article about him, and he never disassociated himself with any such term or took pride in it. To put it bluntly, Pekar was Pekar, a man whose stories came as much from his dissatisfaction and worry as his ear for conversation – and the more he raged, the more his audience sided with him.

“OK. This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he’s a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he’s now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day… guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie.”

– Harvey Pekar, “American Splendor” (film narration)

During my college career, I had the good fortune to see Pekar speak on two occasions at the University of Wisconsin – even writing about one of them – and found him to be an immensely rewarding presence on stage. As unassuming in real life as he was on the page – he almost walked onto the stage during the moderator’s introduction, and then quickly headed behind the curtain – Pekar was grouchy but also somewhat affable, perfectly willing to answer any question directed at him by the moderator or the audience. He didn’t have any interest in deceiving an audience, calling this a “rotten night” and admitting that the various writing contracts he’d gotten as a result of the “American Splendor” film were a good thing because he “could really use the bread.”

Around the time of his second visit for the Midwest Book Festival in 2005, I also had the opportunity to have my copy of his novella “The Quitter” personally autographed, and later had the privilege of reviewing it for my local newspaper. In a rather Pekarian frame of mind, I debated at the time whether or not to send a copy of my review his way, but put it off because even though I reviewed it favorably I was worried about his reaction. It remains one of my regrets in this career, compounded by the fact that I was too young to seek him out when I lived in Cleveland.

For those who have not had the opportunity to read “American Splendor” or any of Pekar’s other works, “The Quitter” also serves as probably the best introduction. Most of the details can be found in my earlier review, but as a first step it works because “The Quitter” manages to condense many of the stories on his family and early job experiences, scattered through previous issues. It also helps that thanks to the solid art style of Dean Haspiel, Pekar’s story is unified in a way anthologies of “American Splendor” comics lack. It’s not as as strongly written as some “American Splendor” issues (though definitely not as bad as some critics said) but its a reliable Cliffs Notes for the series.

After this introduction gives the right understanding of what Pekar readers are in for, it’s simple enough to jump into any of the anthologies that have been collected over the years. I’m partial to “Best of American Splendor” (which I actually won as a door prize at the MBF) but the most famous “Splendor” stories are contained in “The New American Splendor: From Off the Streets of Cleveland,” and “American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.” Pekar’s life and work was also adapted into the 2003 film “American Splendor,” staring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, and it’s a film that nails the beat of Pekar’s writing and attitude and taking only the appropriate liberties with chronology. From the film, he was also able to expand into other writing projects, ranging from a graphic history of Beat writers to the political state of Masadonia.

And if you happen to be as cheap as Pekar, there’s a way to introduce yourself to his style for free. In his last months Pekar, notorious for his technophobia across all computer platforms, actually made the bridge to webcomic writer thanks to The Pekar Project on Smith Magazine. Collaborating with a pool of new artists, the project allowed Pekar to tell new “Splendor”-type stories on a biweekly basis, waxing about Comedy Central or Muncie, Indiana. It’s certainly worth checking out, if only for the fact that according to its creator the project still has several unpublished Pekar stories to bring to life – a posthumous offering appropriate for such a workhouse of a writer.

But sadly, the one posthumous offering we won’t get is the one that would be his perfect swan song: if the Angel of Death had given him ten final minutes to write one last story for the Project or Crumb or Haspiel to illustrate. This might come across as a little insensitive – asking a man to work before their goodbye-cruel-world – but if anyone would have been unreservedly angry, unabashedly honest and tragically funny with the Grim Reaper tapping his watch over their shoulder, it would have been Harvey Pekar. Here’s hoping he’s found the peace that eluded him so on the streets of Cleveland.

“I was alone all that weekend. I thought about “Jennie Gerhardt” an’ Alice Quinn an’ decades a’ faces ran through my mind. I felt like cryin’; life seemed so sweet and so sad an’ so hard t’let go of in the end. But this is Monday. I went t’work, hustled some records, came home an’ wrote this. Life goes on. Every day is a new deal. Keep workin’ and maybe sump’n’ll turn up.”

– Harvey Pekar, “Alice Quinn” (1982)

Our correspondent's personally autographed "The Quitter."


Announcement: TLOTE’s Carrie Lorig Published in elimae

August 3, 2010

While it doesn’t fall within the usual boundaries of criticism and analysis you’ve come to expect from TLOTE, I wanted to take a moment and let readers know that our own resident poetry critic Carrie Lorig has been successfully practicing what she preaches. Carrie’s new poem, “Let the record show,” was published in the latest edition of the online literary magazine elimae and is reprinted below. Hearty congratulations to Carrie from the TLOTE community, and I hope you’ll take a moment to read her words and ponder the fantastic imagery.

Let the record show

what we caught in the background of the photograph.
it was you
on the piano.
the children licking the walls.
what the murder was thinking
when it answered its own heated questions
after
the victim was really gone.
it was standing alone in a tobacco field,
crushing
several vegetable weevils
and one green peach aphid.
she had demanded to be buried in a birdcage.
everyone wore purple like they were asked to.
bruises did not count.
us, on the roof, counting the rib bones in the gutters.
the cracks went all the way down
to the living room.
what flowed between them.