Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

September 3, 2010

The literary world always loves it when an author’s story is as interesting as their books, and there have been few more compelling cases in recent years than that of Stieg Larsson. An influential activist and journalist in Sweden known for his leftist views, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50, and since his death he has inspired a “journalistic subindustry” debating a range of topics from whether or not his death was part of a fascist conspiracy to the brutal divisions that have formed between his romantic partner and his father and brother.

The center of that debate falls on three novels that have come to be known as the Millennium Trilogy, which he wrote in his spare hours and which were published posthumously. Following a journalist and hacker as they dig into government corruption and individual depravity, the titles shot to the top of the charts in Sweden and gradually spread to the rest of the world, making Larsson the first author to sell more than one million books on Amazon – he’s been more successful dead than 99 percent of writers are while alive.

All three of these books have made it over to Western shores in recent years (the third installment released in May of this year) and have been followed by a series of film adaptations filmed in the author’s home of Sweden. The first of those films, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men who Hate Women” in Larsson’s native tongue) premiered in March to acclaim that matched its source material – which is fitting, since it does a very respectable job converting that source material to film. It’s a film that loses a few too many of the of the intricacies Larsson put into the book, but when it comes to atmosphere and characters it’s every bit as compelling and unnerving.

The film’s narrative is essentially unchanged from the book’s setup. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist disgraced by an investigation gone wrong, is enticed by an offer from former captain of industry Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the “cold case” of his niece Harriet, missing 40 years and presumed dead. Digging through boxes of evidence and skeletons in the Vanger family closet, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an antisocial yet frighteningly brilliant hacker whose previous job was digging into his life for Vanger.

As a mystery story, the two biggest strengths of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were its sprawling yet closed-off setting and its meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to the first, the film has done an excellent job of depicting the cold expanses of the island of Hedeby, which was sealed off on the day of the alleged murder and which still houses many of the suspects. Wealthier members have sprawling older estates, while Blomkvist spends his time in cabins heated by stoves and with pipes freezing on a regular basis, and Salander mostly moves through enclosed streets and filthy hackers’ dens. The locations and camerawork keep the story feeling both vast and yet claustrophobic, like a place concealing a secret and with a lot of places to hide said secret.

While the setting neatly approximates ones mental picture from the book, the plot is not translated as well. The fact-finding that leads Blomkvist and Salander to the truth is intact, and presented in a series of compelling research montages that help reinforce the Vangers’ depravity, but the storytelling feels in some places like it’s been simplified rather than neatly distilled. The Vanger family tree – decades of infighting, fascism and abuse – has been pruned down considerably, and only Henrik and his nephew Martin get measurable screen time. Some annoying stylistic changes are also made to simplify the story and undercut the efficacy of the montages, including repeated cuts to Harriet’s picture and Blomkvist’s flashbacks of her babysitting him as a child (whereas in the book he didn’t remember it).

The flashbacks are an annoying addition to Blomkvist, but more annoying are the subtractions. He is simply not as compelling of a character in the film as he is in the book – not the fault of Michael Nyqvist’s performance, but rather that the adaptation has shaved his character traits to nothing. His involvement with the magazine Millennium consists only of scenes in the beginning and end of the film, he’s not researching a Vanger biography as his cover for digging into the past, and most of his personal relationships are unspoken or excised. In the narrowed cast there’s no ex-wife and daughter, no friends-with-benefits relationship with his editor Erika and no affair with Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The only points where the character genuinely clicks come when he is at work, as he pours over documents and negatives and simply stares at them as if willing the pieces to come together.

Nyqvist is an enjoyable actor to watch think, but his partner is even more so. Per my Capturing the Voice piece, I consider it the highest form of praise to say that an actor/actress “is” the character they’re portraying – superseding whatever mental image you have while reading – and in that regard, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander. Aesthetically she’s a match with an anorexic frame and constant punk/goth outfit, but the selling point is in her face. Her features are narrow, closed off and completely neutral, but her eyes betray the eidetic brilliance she is ashamed of (a detail the film portrays well in her working relationship and subsequent coupling with Blomkvist). When she scans over innumerable screens on her Macbook through cigarette smoke and dyed bangs, her appearance seems almost like a blind – someone who has found it easier to let the world think what it wants so it lets her work. She comes across as a bit more callous than the book’s version, but since the film borrows elements of the sequel “The Girl Who Played with Fire” these additions might be appropriate.

The only cracks in Salander’s armor come out in times of real distress – and the film doesn’t shy away from bringing those times to life. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book has some incredibly hard to read scenes depicting torture, rape and revenge – which I won’t describe as it would dilute their intensity – and to the film’s considerable credit all are kept in hauntingly graphic detail. They aren’t presented as shock value or for their own sake, but with a stark clarity that reflects Larsson’s straightforward prose. When characters talk about the horrible things they are going to do, they don’t scream or make elaborate analogies – they simply state the facts and let the conviction in their words and eyes cow their victims into submission. It’s a drama as cold and stark as the island’s winter, treated with a respect that earned particular praise from Roger Ebert:

This is not a deep psychological study. But it’s a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.

And it’s this maturity that makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” work as a translation of its source material, despite its stripping away the journalistic/romantic sideplots and details that made the original so compelling. This film understands its titular character and its atmosphere, and by playing these two angles it’s able to overcome a lot of its weaknesses – even an ending that does come straight from the book but is edited in a way that feels like the ending to a caper movie. It’s a dark, compelling film that will interest even casual readers of the Millennium Trilogy, and with two other films on the horizon it appears that the series is worth following to the end in both formats.

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Book Review: Android Karenina

June 8, 2010

Android Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Published June 8, 2010

Quirk Books

538 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74460-2

Reviewed June 8, 2010

It’s now been a little over a year since the literary mash-up genre made its way into the public spotlight, and in that time the marriage of popular culture with public domain has had its share of ups and downs. It began strongly with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a title that sounded like a throwaway joke but exceeded expectations by cleverly using its undead graft to enhance the original’s story rather than replace it. The series continued to expand through Austen with reasonable success, adding deep sea mythology with “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and creating a prequel to their first entry in the fanfiction-esque “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”

But while the first three titles opened to favorable reviews, the introduction of “PPZ” has had some rather unpleasant aftershocks. Its success led to a string of derivative books with exceedingly silly titles, which might hold up on their own but seemed to cheapen the mash-up idea simply by their very existence. This could also be reflected in various parody titles suggested online, which as time went on sadly seemed to sound more reasonable as suggestions for upcoming releases.

As I suggested previously, I thought that the reason for this was that that Quirk and others were dwelling too heavily on Jane Austen and zombies, and that they would be better suited expanding into new authors and genres. But as it turns out, that may not have been to the genre’s benefit, as the Quirk Classics’ fourth installment “Android Karenina” is their first major malfunction. While they have taken my advice by changing authors to Leo Tolstoy and genres to steampunk, the main casualty of the shift is the spirit that made the originals so successful.

“Android Karenina” follows the established formula for mash-ups by not deviating too heavily from the original’s core structure. Set in 19th century Russia, it paints a broad picture of a series of members of the Russian aristocracy and the culture surrounding them, centering around two love stories. On one hand is the affair between the elegant noblewoman Anna Karenina and the proud soldier Count Vronsky; and on the other is the courtship of young Kitty by the country gentleman Levin.

The extra element to the story comes with a literal element, the miraculous groznium, which has advanced technology by leaps and bounds. Great grav trains glide between Russian cities on magnetic rails, citizens skate on electromagnetic ice patches and waltz above the floor on high-powered air jets, and beloved-companion robots offer reassurance and replay footage of memories to their high-society owners.

In my “SSM” review I argued that the book’s main weakness was the fact that it was trying to introduce too many ideas – pirates, deep-sea monsters, steampunk tech to name a few – and “Android Karenina” feels even more bloated with content. Beyond the technology, there is a terrorist organization called UnConSciya undermining the government with sabotage dangerous insect-like “koschei” machines; the rumored existence of “Honored Guests” who are revealed to be hideous reptilian creatures trying to take over the Earth; and the discussed possibility of time travel that eventually comes together in a twist ending worthy of lesser M. Night Shymalan films. Each of these additions brings in various action scenes, which author Ben H. Winters (of “SSM”) renders competently but which feel more preposterous the longer one reads.

These elements aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but the critical failing of them is that they actually detract from the original – every time I feel real interest in the characters or setting, something outlandish completely breaks the flow. Anna is riding home on the train, considering the strange feelings Vronsky inspires in her despite her life as a wife and mother, when all of a sudden koschei attack the train and attempt “to plunge [their] heart-sucking electrode antenna into the chambers of her heart.” Kitty, pining away over tuberculosis and a broken heart, is recommended to go abroad by the doctor – and “thus were the Scherbatskys blasted into space.”

Granted, none of the titles in the mash-up field are intended to be taken seriously in the full definition of the word, but there was a strange sense of legitimacy to “Android Karenina’s” predecessors. “PPZ” kept Austen’s mannerisms and social context intact, with the zombie infestation seen as part of life they all grew accustomed to. “SSM” was more deliberately fantastical, but still managed to create a legitimate setting where the world had adapted to the “Ascension” and added new elements – remote cottages replaced with islands, London replaced by Sub-Marine Station Beta. In “Android Karenina,” the additions just feel silly at best and detrimental at worst – even the titular androids feel like mere simplifications of the original text, devices to personify character traits or voice internal dialogue.

This could also be attributed to the fact that Tolstoy, one of the legendary Russian writers and considered by some the greatest novelist of all time, is a far different animal to Jane Austen. I have not read all of the original “Anna Karenina” myself, but TLOTE’s own “Classical Anna” has and discussed it in great detail, praising it for “smooth and clear” prose with details “carefully picked to draw readers further into the world.” Tolstoy’s world is much more nuanced than Austen’s, a sprawling epic of complicated individuals where alterations resonate all the deeper – and the alterations made by Winters never seem to work in tandem with the source.

Overall, Tolstoy might not have been the best choice for adaptation – a choice made markedly clear because the mash-up is taking more from the original than it gives. At 538 pages “Android Karenina” is roughly as long as the first two Quirk Classics installments combined, but even at that length it’s still 300 pages shorter than contemporary translations of the original text. Several chapters have been edited down or removed entirely, and while the ones removed don’t seem to hurt the story (based on cursory review) there’s no telling how much characterization and context was stripped away as a result.

“Andoid Karenina” is a book that really doesn’t feel able to justify its existence – it adds nothing to Tolstoy appreciation, to the steampunk genre or to the mash-up movement it is trying to continue. It has a few curiosities here and there, but is for the most part taking a very sturdy framework and adding annoying bells and whistles that detract from the original’s effectiveness. Does this mean that it’s time to put this fledgling genre down? I’m not willing to go that far yet, but I will urge Quirk Classics to think twice if their next effort plans to put lasers or vampires into “War and Peace.”


Column: Summer Reading List 2009: The Fall

September 23, 2009

fall-of-autumn-leaves-wallpaper

Well, the autumn equinox has passed us by, and the last time frame that we can consider the summer of 2009 has drawn to a close. And with the end of summer comes the end of summer reading lists, mine among them. Does anyone care how well I did? Does anyone wonder what I thought of them? Does anyone still read this site considering how long it’s been since my last update? (P.S.: New reviews, Back Shelf and Text-to-Screen are coming soon.)

Since that piece wound up being the most read article on my site (piggy-backing onto searches for summer reading lists) I assume people care, so I’ve decided to take a look back and see how I managed to do. I didn’t do as well as I would have hoped, chiefly because I discovered P.G. Wodehouse at the start of June and spent the majority of the summer reading and rereading the adventures of Wooster, Psmith and Ukridge among others. I’m going to be writing a piece on that shortly, but in the meantime here’s a piece the A.V. Club did that has a fairly good introduction to the canon.

Please do note that since I didn’t manage to read the entirety of the list, these entries vary in length – either me talking in detail about the book, or making excuses as to why I didn’t read. Others I did manage to read but wound up writing full reviews on, so I’ll save you from my repeats and just link you to the original articles. Much like my summer, this list will likely be chaotic and all over the place.

1. “2666”, by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverIn a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…

2. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverMaybe it’s a part of my obsessive nature, maybe it’s my feeling of satisfaction at looking upon my bookshelf, but for some reason I always feel both driven and obligated to finish titles that I purchase. However, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is one of the rare books that I just couldn’t gather up the interest to finish and gave up on within a hundred pages.

Now this isn’t anything to do with the author himself – I always take Hemingway’s side in the Faulkner vs. Hemingway debates, count “A Moveable Feast” as one of my favorite titles and think some of his short stories are possessed of a truly brilliant craft. The problem I have is I find he works best in shorter format, or dealing with his life as a writer – once he gets into the world of war it starts to drag. Honestly, I’ve found that his novels seem to go down in my estimation as they progress: loved “The Sun Also Rises,” was iffy on “A Farewell to Arms,” didn’t like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at all.

My objection to the book isn’t the craft of the words, but just the fact that it’s utterly devoid of action to start and not in a good way. The main action of the first hundred pages is simply discussing war and bombing the bridge, but never moves on from that first scene – all the same characters and the singular setting. We get a lot of discussion on war and patriotism, but the characters tend to repeat themselves in that same Hemingway voice (and as William S. Burroughs observed, nobody talks like that except Hemingway characters).

And, while I know this isn’t Hemingway’s fault, I could never get around his main character being called Robert Jordan. It makes me wonder if his character will set his explosives muttering about how “ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”

Maybe Hemingway just works better in a shorter format, or maybe I just prefer his writing on Paris to his writing on war. Either way, that bell did not toll for me.

3. “The Year of Living Biblically,” by A.J. Jacobs

year-of-living-biblically_cover

I actually wound up doing a formal review of this one some time ago, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that this is a funny and meaningful book, and one of the only things to pique my own interest in reading the Bible – and considering how devout of an agnostic I am, that’s an achievement in and of itself.

4. “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestYeah, what do you think happened? Despite friends telling me you can read it out of order and it really doesn’t matter as much as other books, despite the fact that I haven’t had any work save rattling off a few freelance features this summer, despite the fact I’ve been working out and can lift the volume above my head, I didn’t manage to read David Foster Wallace’s behemoth this year either. Thought about it but always managed to find an excuse – family coming into town, got to get a review done, can’t find my copy anywhere. (That last one’s actually still true.)

I think though that one of the main factors that kept me from really getting into the book was the discovery of the “Infinite Summer” group – though not for the reasons you may think. I wanted to join but the group was already into it, asking questions and discussing plot points I hadn’t heard of. I felt getting into it late would just muddle things up, and with a book like this focus is key. Were I to have discovered this group at the start of the summer, it would have given me something to shoot for and a sense of community, which I think is essential for a book of this scope and depth.

I find it entirely possible I won’t have gotten around to reading it by next summer either, and if so I intend to get into the group right away. Feel free to cite me on this nine months from now.

5. “Losing Mum and Pup,” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupAgain, this one turned into an actual review so I’ll point you there for my comments. The short version, Christopher Buckley is in top form here, with one of the rare books that manages to choke me up and make me laugh in alternating chapters.

6.“The Graveyard Book,” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBThis one is uninteresting to talk about sadly – I don’t own the book and am short on cash to purchase new ones, so therefore I have neglected to pick up my own version. For thematic reasons, I’m going to wait a few weeks to pick up a copy and read it around the end of October once the nights start getting cold and the leaves start changing.

dfsdfsf

7.“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England,” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverThis one I also didn’t get to, but to be honest it was more of a space issue than a scheduling one. Due to the fact that my apartment has about as much free space as a janitor’s closet I’ve had to economize, storing books in various piles and boxes around the apartment. “An Arsonist’s Guide” wound up inside an antique wooden chest that I use as an end table early on and I never managed to recover it, pulling it out only recently during an apartment reorganization. I’m adding it to the queue of general reading after I finish off a few titles I’ve got lined up to review.

8.“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverI have not read or purchased the book yet, and therefore this one is also uninteresting to talk about. Rest assured that I do intend to have it read by the time the film comes out in order to do a proper Text-to-Screen. I have seen a trailer for the film – which was accompanied by trailers for “9” and “2012.” What is up with the apocalyptic fixation of Hollywood these days?

9.“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayHo ho, what’s this? A book I actually got around to reading.

I said in my original list that this was one I wanted to read on the grounds that I hadn’t gotten into Michael Chabon yet, and reading it proved my title that I really should have read it by now. This is a wonderfully constructed novel, telling the story of two cousins making their names as creators of superhero comics and working past their problematic childhoods.

What I love the most about this one is its atmosphere and the depth Chabon takes with each of his main characters, creating their back story and motivations to a surprising degree. Escapism is a major theme of the book and in many ways it feels like an escapist novel, showing a rags-to-riches story and fountains of creativity in its main characters. Fittingly for a novel about comic writing, it also takes the time to really flesh out the comic characters his main characters create, and expertly show how they were both influenced by real people and influence those people in turn.

The problem I have with this book is that it makes a very unfortunate turn a little more than halfway through, abandoning its earlier focus for a sojourn into the coldest, most isolated part of World War II. I’ll avoid giving away any spoilers, but it breaks what was a rip-roaring jaunt through comic book history and growing romance into often macabre melodrama. The section is certainly well-done, but it doesn’t feel right – like a separate novella Chabon hastily stitched in when the deadline was due. He recovers somewhat in the final section by picking up in New York, but this works chiefly because its plot points are from the first parts.

Final verdict? A good book overall and I’m glad I read it this summer, but it doesn’t earn a spot in my favorites as it has for a lot of other people.

10.“The Boys on the Bus”

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverIn another odd mixup, the last one on the list actually wound up being the first one I read this summer – mostly because the drive to reread has always been stronger in me than most people. And it’s another book that definitely benefits from a reread, especially post-2008 presidential campaign. It’s unsettling to see how many of the trends in reporting and candidates simply remain the same, ranging from pack journalism to the regurgitation of press releases in lieu of proper reporting.

It’s also worth taking a look at for his sections on the reporters as personalities, chiefly because it features R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. and Robert Novak, both of whom passed away between my reads of the book. Crouse does a great job phrasing and depicting the reporters, some as egomaniacs and some as strategists, some as frustrated with their editors and some as surprisingly content to churn out their content.

So that’s how my list turned out: four reads, four not started, one stopped early, one in progress. Yours?

    In a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

    And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

    This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

    Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

    And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…


Death of a Writer Notice: Frank McCourt

July 20, 2009

Frank_mccourt

The New York Times announced on Sunday that author Frank McCourt passed away at the age of 78 from metastatic melanoma. A long time writing teacher in New York City, McCourt was best known amongst literary circles for his 1996 memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” a tale of his difficult Irish and Brooklyn childhood that won several awards and was adapted to film in 1999.

“I must congratulate myself, in passing, for never having lost the ability to examine my conscience, never having lost the gift of finding myself wanting & defective. Why fear the criticism of others when you, yourself, are first out of the critical gate? If self-denigration is the race I am the winner, even before the starting gun. Collect the bets.” – Frank McCourt


Wipe Your Feet Before Entering These Sites

July 13, 2009

I bet the number of  poetry/short fiction magazines born online per minute is close to the number of cigarettes smoked in the world per minute.  10 million?  Maybe.  But anyway, here are some links to some recent online issues of magazines with lots and lots of words I’ve  enjoyed.

  • Ocho 25 : This issue is edited by the great and the crass Blake Butler, and it has artwork from a 12-year-old.
  • Diagram 9.3: A tried and true, guys.  This one knows how to serve them up.
  • harp and altar: Issue six.  I recommend the  poems translated from their original Russian by Zachary Schomburg about circus freaks.
  • kill author: Issue one is dedicated to Roland Barthes, who died after being hit by a laundry van. There are lots of great poems, prose, and a few hot pictures of R.B.
  • Sixth Finch: There are two new poems from Emily Kendel Frey. I’m always on the look out for new work from her.
  • Jellyfish Magazine is manned by two women, which isn’t as common as I’d like it to be. The first issue is so beautiful, I’ve read it several times. I’ve also seriously considered stealing it all.

Column: In which Carrie looks back at her first attempt to write about poetry

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an earlier column written by Carrie Lorig for the Daily Cardinal on February 14, 2007. See author comments annotated below, as well as a mission statement at the end regarding future articles.)

One of contemporary pop culture’s favorite pastimes is pushing the limits of ‘shock value’ when it comes to sex and sexual innuendo. Today, unfortunately, addressing sexuality is not usually associated with making your mother proud, but with making her cringe.

Even though Fergie thinks she’s being really clever with hooks like “How come every time you come around, my London, London bridge wanna go down?,” we know the “meaning” the Duchess is trying to convey does not hail from her previous woes as a working class bridge operator, forced to raise and lower said bridge for perhaps, a large fishing dinghy or cruise ship loaded with those pesky bourgeoisie. (This paragraph was submitted for carbon dating. Samples were compared to the weave Fergie wore on the cover of this horrible album. Results suggest that this was definitely 2007.)

Listeners engage in their own cover-up games. We coyly feign scandal at allusions to sexual excess and exploitation while secretly sliding up the volume on our iPods. In truth, sick beats do their job well and we rarely concern ourselves with the thought that a song can be too vulgar.

But the tradition of covert sexuality in art and culture is capable of engaging in a much more complicated, and probably a much more healthy game of social tug-of-war. When poets imagine sex in a way that challenges or differentiates from what is considered the “social norm,” a space for real conversation and action is created. While they may contain the similar kinds of gratuitous sexual references as these songs, poems seem to strive to retain the intimacy and poignancy of sex in its snapshot-like frame.

The poet John Donne wrote several notorious poems that, under the guise of metaphor, were rather flowery suggestions to his plentiful mistresses as to what they could, you know, do later on in the evening after some very important study of course, some stately court dancing (The Galliard! The Sinkapace!), and maybe some drinks.

Donne was a very religious man, and his poetry directly comprised and contradicted his dedication to a Christian lifestyle. However, he believed in expressing love as his body dictated him to, sans the guilt imposed by conservative (or perhaps simply repressed or tragically unattractive) leaders in the church. Though poetry instinctively caters to the imagistic imagination, Donne’s work was less of a fantasy than the “pure” world Jacobean moralists insisted was reality.

More contemporary poets, like Carol Ann Duffy, covertly address notions of gender and homosexuality. In poems like “Warming Her Pearls,” she creates a female-to-female relationship that is unapologetic and assertive about its sexuality. “She fans herself / whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering / each pearl.” (This is the only contemporary poet I reference in this whole article. She’s finally the poet laureate of Great Britain now. I would like to know how the cigars taste inside the boys club, Carol.)

And we are not only invited to view a refreshing, and perhaps more accurate view of sex through such poems, but we can also marvel at their abilities to manipulate and flirt with language. “She being Brand” is a scandalous poem by e.e. cummings, but it’s also light-hearted and vibrant, making it suitable for virgins eyes. “she being Brand / new; and you / know consequently a / little stiff i was / careful of her”

Be comforted. There is more to love poetry than meets the Hallmark card. (That’s the closer? Really, 2007 Carrie?)

This article definitely documents my awkward undergrad poetry awakening. I can’t believe I referenced John Donne because I’ve always sort of hated his poetry. (That doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, though.) I think I did it to feel credible. A big name like that is safe and easy and sure to get you in the door. Anyone moderately interested in literature is acquainted with the same poets for the most part. Someone mentions Pound was a fascist and wins a pie wedge in a game of trivial pursuit. “The  Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” remains as lovely as ever, doesn’t it? We all agree.

But I’m not going to write about those poets we’re comfortable with. I want to talk about poets who are putting out issues of magazines that are available online for free, making free e-books, and keeping small presses alive with their print work. It’s nice to think of a poet checking the same 10-day weather forecast as you. You see your own issues inside their poetry and it feels like a place of resistance and your local Perkins at the same time.  I hope I can show readers that young poets are saying and doing exciting, relatable things. They are driving some fast cars. Let’s go hack their blogs while they’re out, okay?


Column: A Classic from Classical Anna

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As part of an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an early column from Anna Williams written on November 29, 2007 in the Daily Cardinal. Check back on Thursday for the first installment of her “Classical Anna” feature.)

(Author’s note: This is one of my favorite columns because it captures both my mental and physical connection with books. It highlights the sensual experience of reading a book, which is often overlooked. There are a few things I would change about the writing (particularly the sentence structure), but it shows off my voice. I hear the Kindle is doing well lately and that makes me sad.

“No, no, no, no!” That was me as I read an article from the latest issue of Newsweek entitled “Books Aren’t Dead (They’re Just Going Digital).” In this horror-inducing article, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos promotes his new electronic doo-hickey “The Kindle” as the savior of reading. Apparently, the Kindle is a gadget that holds over two hundred books and displays the pages on a screen.

Now, one might suppose that being the literature lover that I am, I would be in support of any new device that promotes and spreads reading. After all, Bezos says the underlying idea of the Kindle “is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute.”

But no. Despite all its advantages and possible benefits for reading, I do not support the Kindle. In fact, it makes me want to vomit. I love books, and by that I mean not just the words that when strung together form ideas, convey emotions and create a story, but also the physical book itself – feeling the soft pages of a book beneath one’s fingertips, dog-earing the pages, bending the binding. For me and many other readers, reading is not only a mental and emotional experience, but a physical, sensual one as well, and if books become mainly electronic, an essential part of the reading experience will truly be lost.

For instance, one of the best parts of reading is the smell of the book. In fact, I even consider myself a connoisseur of book smells: my sense of smell is so refined that I can detect a difference, no matter how small, between every book I’ve ever read. Even more than that, these scents are tied to my memory – all I have to do is flip through the pages of a novel, breath in the scent, and I am instantly taken back to the time when I first read it. Imagine me and other book-scent experts pressing our noses against a Kindle! All that would accomplish is smudging the screen.

Furthermore, if this Kindle creates the revolution in reading that Bezos predicts, we will lose the human mark and history that the physical book records. And readers love this history – why else would so many people collect used and first editions? I have many books my grandparents once owned, yellowed with age, their margins scribbled with notes. Sometimes I even find old newspaper clippings tucked between the pages. I just don’t think a future kid will appreciate it in the same way if his grandfather passes a Kindle along to him. (Grandpa, this is just a regular Kindle. I already have the Kindle 2.0!)

The idea of a world where people sit curled by the fire reading from an electronic screen or read to their children at bedtime from a Kindle sends a chill down my spine, as it should for any true book lover. So, here’s my plea to all readers out there: don’t buy the Kindle! Never ever! Instead, I suggest we all celebrate the launch of this little gadget by going to a local bookstore, buying a real book or two, flipping them open, and deeply inhaling the pages.