Play Time: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls centers on Marlene, an agent at the London-based Top Girls employment agency, who has just been promoted to manager. The action of the play occurs in three main spaces: the Top Girls agency, where the audience sees the tensions Marlene and her female colleagues are facing in a male-dominated world; the home of Marlene’s sister Joyce and Marlene’s illegitimate child that Joyce has raised as her own, where the audience sees Marlene’s lower-class roots and her rejection and contempt for them; and, the opening scene taking up more than a third of the play, a celebratory luncheon attended by historical female figures—some fictional, some real, some a combination of both—advising Marlene on her success and relating their own stories of achievement and challenges in patriarchal societies.

While there is no dramatic this-leads-to-that connection between these different spaces, they are all in conversation with one another, and in productions of the play all of the actors for the historical figures are double cast as other characters throughout the rest of the play. This thematic dialogue between the different spaces is what ties the play together into a cohesive exploration of female empowerment, and the self-destructive nature of empowerment through capitalistic, patriarchal means. It’s also, in itself, a theatrical way to represent how past and present overlap, echo, and argue—both the past of Marlene’s personal life, and the past of the entirety of history.

Interruptions and Continuations

The first scene of the play does an excellent job of dramatizing the conversation of history, with five historical figures converging in the present moment. Rather than a normal, back-and-forth conversation, the characters talk around one another. Instead of one character telling a story about an illness they had, and another saying “I had something like that too—how long did it last for you?” the dialogue runs more like:

“ISABELLA: But even though my spine was agony I managed very well.
“MARLENE: Wonderful.
“NIJO: Once I was ill for four months lying alone at an inn. Nobody to offer a horse to Buddha. I had to live for myself, and I did live.
“ISABELLA: Of course you did. It was far worse returning to Tobermory. I always felt dull when I was stationary. / That’s why I would never stay anywhere.
“NIJO: Yes, that’s it exactly. New sights. The shrine by the sea. The goddess had vowed to save all living things. / She would even save the fishes. I was full of hope.
“JOAN: I had thought the Pope would know everything.” (24-25)

Read More »

Free Fiction: The Forgotten Coast

This was originally a writing exercise for my Foundations of Creative Writing class. I revised it a few times for that class, and I’ve toyed around with posting it here. Now, with the publication of “Calamcity,” I can leverage it into a promotional tool for that novelette, so it’s like I’ve got to publish it now, right? So, here it is:

The Forgotten Coast

I finally went on one of those kitschy submarine tours around the sunken wreckage of Pensacola and PCB and the Forgotten Coast. Hurricane Erica wrecked the shop, so I’d been sitting around waiting for the insurance company to get back to me, to see whether I was finally down the drain after circling it so long—and I saw an an ad with a coupon code for the Forgotten Coast tour. A few years ago, Jesse had really wanted to go on it, just before her, Ed, and their kids moved inland, but I’d been sick. Not sick enough to not go, but I’d played it up like I was. I always knew that I could go to the coast whenever I wanted, so I never felt any urgent pressure to do so. It was all flooded already, a few years’ more sea-level rise wouldn’t change that. And the ruin-porn aspect of it chafed at me. I didn’t want to sit in a sub with a bunch of inlanders gazing in awe at my ravaged childhood like it was a disaster movie.

But I saw this ad with a coupon code, and I was doing nothing, and I had this strange feeling like maybe, with the shop in shambles, I would finally be moving inland like my family and friends had done years and years ago, and maybe this one stupid coupon was meant to be my last chance to see the coast—so I bought the discounted ticket. I took a bus down from Tallahassee to Milton, now a coastal town. It was mostly tourists getting onto the sub (I could tell by their clean, uncorrupted northern English and pale skin) and a handful of local kids with red-brown tans. At least, they looked like kids to me. Teens, early twenties, late twenties—kids.Read More »

New Publications: “Calamcity,” and “De.mocra.cy” Audiobook

We’re well into summer now, so I’ve just published a summery novelette about a topic that I just can’t leave alone: climate change in Florida. A couple years ago, I posted two pieces of research on beach nourishment—that research was done for this story.

Minolta DSC“Calamcity” is set in a not too distant future, when beach erosion has accelerated dramatically due to rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity—but a new breed of bioengineered living shorelines appears to be a perfect solution to hold sand in place. To oversee a test-run of this technique, Joseph Lopez joins his brother Steve on Cape Dodd, a Floridian beach that has been battling erosion for years under Steve’s management. Joseph just wants to bring back the large, stable, sunny beaches of his youth, and provide a nice vacation house for his aging parents. But as Joseph and Steve find, Cape Dodd is in for a rough summer of constant hurricanes and mysterious mass die-offs of the living shoreline.

You can get “Calamcity” on Smashwords or Amazon.

Also, I’ve just released the audiobook for “De.mocra.cy,” a short story about symbolic protest, gangs, and regulation in a democratically run MMO. The audiobook is written and performed by me, so if you enjoyed my production of The Absolute at Large, you should enjoy the performance of this story. The audiobook is available for digital download on CDBaby, on Audible and iTunes. You can listen to a sample of the audiobook in the video below. And you can listen to some outtakes and moments of silliness from the recording session in the video below the video below.

Play Time: Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Strange Interlude covers a span of about twenty-five years in the lives of Nina Reeds and her three lovesick admirers—Charles Marsden, Edmund Darrell, and Sam Evans. At the beginning of the play, Nina is heartbroken over the death of the love of her life, Gordon Shaw, in World War I. Throughout the rest of the play, she is attempting to fill in the gaps left by Gordon with Marsden, Darrell, and Evans. There are plenty of twists across the nine acts of this five-hour play, but the most notable feature is the internal monologue device. Characters frequently stop to deliver their thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style—not in a Shakespearean manner, where the actors seem to be taking the audience into their confidence, but more like the playwright has slowed down the action and opened up the mind of a character to show the audience their thought process.

This play deals with time in two ways—in micro and in macro. The micro is the internal monologues, which take individual, fleeting moments and expand them into sometimes multiple minutes of speech. The macro is the enormous scale of the play itself, which covers over two decades, comprises nine acts, and is typically presented with a dinner break in between acts five and six. The tension between these two levels of time is the tension, and dissonance, experienced by everyone—the brief, minute, immediate nature of the present set against the enormous backdrop of a person’s life.

Micro

O’Neill achieves this sense of immediacy in a few ways. First, the obvious, through the monologues. While there’s no indication of whether or not the rest of the scene freezes or slows down when a character’s internal monologue begins, it certainly seems to slow down. The monologues are full of ellipses and rambling sentences, questions and repeated ideas. The effect of this slow, languorous pace to the interior of the characters is that when the actual dialogue of the scene resumes, it feels rapid and instant, unrestrained.Read More »

Play Time: Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby by Samuel Beckett

For this project, I wanted to read some short plays at some point, as short plays can get away with doing deviant formalistic things that longer plays can’t. I chose these three plays by Samuel Beckett because they are sometimes collected together, or performed together, and with good reason. While each play was written separately, all of them overlap in their treatments of time and memory.

Not I

Not I is a monologue performed by “Mouth.” When staged, the actor playing Mouth wears black make-up over her face, and the lighting is as isolated as possible to just the mouth. The effect is of a disembodied mouth, floating in darkness, rapidly reciting sentence fragments which tell a story of a woman—presumably the owner of the mouth—who has lived a solitary, bleak life, and who has scarcely spoken throughout all of it. The title comes from the repeated refrain of Mouth: “what? … who? … no! … she!”—denying that what she is describing happened to her.

The play explores the disjuncture between experience and retelling, with the speaker being an extreme case of someone whose speech has become drastically separated from her experience of the world. The whole play, Mouth is trying to make sense of the woman’s life, constantly asking questions, constantly doubling back, always unsure, and always careening forward to dig up some other scrap of memory. The way Mouth bolts through fragmented sentences puts in mind a person searching through a library for a book, and reading aloud titles and last names of authors as they go.

The speech is not just an attempt to retell what has happened in this woman’s life for the sake of the audience—it is an attempt to make sense of it for herself. Almost all her life she has been speechless, unable or unwilling to connect her experiences with linguistic structure, and so Not I is an attempt to do so. It is a demonstration of the difficulties of manifesting a life verbally, of making sense of events through retelling, and of the disconnect between the person who lived an experience and the person telling it (even if they are one and the same.)Read More »

Play Time: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury

This past semester I needed to fulfill my honors requirements by completing 3 s.h. of honors credit. I wasn’t in any honors classes, so I did this by contracting a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the way the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea isn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in the play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it. This first post is on We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and I promise I will only use the abbreviation of that title from here on out.

We Are Proud to Present is a play about six actors putting together a theatrical presentation detailing the history of Namibia as a German colony, and the genocide of the Herero people. The play is as much focused on the conquest, exploitation, and extermination of the peoples of Namibia as it is on how the actors are portraying it, how they are trying to relate to it, how theatre operates as a medium, and how to tell the history of a people who were almost completely wiped out. 

Processtation

The play (that is, the theatrical work written by Drury) portrays this presentation (that is, the theatrical work performed by the characters in the play) from start to finish in chronological order, though it switches back and forth between “The Presentation” and “The Process” (7). Each scene is labeled as one of the two. “The Presentation” is an actual performance of the presentation, and “The Process” is a rehearsal of it (presumably early on in the production.) So while the audience (that is, an actual real world audience) is seeing the presentation about the Herero of Namibia from start to finish, they are also seeing the actors themselves in two different moments in time. This structure accomplishes a few things.

First, it’s an efficient way to show both the creation of the show and the show itself. The play could’ve been divided into two acts, the first The Process and the second The Presentation, but by interweaving the two into one continuous action, Drury can avoid repetition, and just show the most important pieces of each strand.

Second, it makes it very clear how The Process is being expressed in The Presentation. For example, at one point during rehearsal, the actors are doing an exercise, and Actor 3 is acting as Actor 6’s grandma:

“(ACTOR 3 smacks ACTOR 4 with his prop on each “Tell.”)
“ACTOR 3 (as Grandma): Tell me that you didn’t eat that cornbread. …
“Tell me that you didn’t eat that corner piece of cornbread.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you ate that corner piece of cornbread.
“I can Tell the corner piece is missing so Tell me that you ate it.
“Tell me.
“Tell me.” (58)

Later on, during the actual performance, the audience sees how the actors have repurposed this theatrical device for a completely different scene, with completely different implications:

“(ANOTHER WHITE MAN lands blows on BLACK MAN on each “Tell.”)
“ANOTHER WHITE MAN: Tell the man you broke the law …
“Tell the man you were gonna kill me.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you were gonna kill me.
“I can Tell you wanted to kill me, so Tell the man.
“Tell him.
“Tell him.” (102)

There are echoes, recurrences, like this all throughout the play, and by presenting the rehearsal and the performance in such close proximity Drury examines how the most contentious, the most bizarre, or the most seemingly useless ideas generated during rehearsal are reshaped, retooled, and evolved to express something in the presentation.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End

When I was a kid, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’ve reread all thirteen books. This final post is about The End, book 13. This post will contain spoilers for The End and probably other books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “I would drop this [review] at once, so THE END does not finish you.”

The_End
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Finally, we arrive at The End. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are at sea with Count Olaf, and a massive storm shipwrecks them on an island. Pretty soon they encounter the inhabitants of the island, an easygoing colony of castaways, lead by the “facilitator” Ishmael. Count Olaf is forbidden from entering the colony, and while the colony is undoubtedly dull and unambitious, it seems the Baudelaires have finally found a place where they can be safe. Of course, it turns out the island is full of as many mysteries and confusing conflicts as the world the Baudelaires left behind, and the siblings come to realize that they can never really escape these issues.

The End is also the end. (Surprise.) It is Book the Last, and it knows it. Where The Penultimate Peril felt climactic in terms of surface-level story elements—bringing together characters from all throughout the series, putting the Baudelaires in the middle of a direct conflict between the two factions of VFD—The End feels climactic in terms of theme. The book is exploding with meaningful imagery, literary and biblical allusions, thematic discourse, and symbolic scenes. I’m only going to talk about some of them though, the ones that interest me, but there’s all sorts of overlap, so hopefully I’ll be able to cover all the main threads by doing this.

STTTTTTUUUUUUUUUUFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!

“What’s the deal with all this super specific junk in the general store?”—that’s the note I made when this motif first cropped up in The Hostile Hospital. In the opening of that book, the Baudelaires are in a general store waiting for a telegram, and multiple times Handler lists out in hyper-specific detail the items surrounding them, none of which seem to fit with each other:

“They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fyber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.” (18-19)

Is this a comment on materialism? Something about greed maybe? I had a hunch about what it could be, but Handler didn’t distinctly make the connection, so I just continued to note the motif whenever it popped up. In The Grim Grotto, when the Baudelaires are in the grotto, they each list out all the worthless items they’ve found while searching for the Sugar Bowl. Again, it’s hard to tell if Handler is just having fun or actually doing something.Read More »

New Publication: The War on Hormones

twoh-c-5It’s summer now—I just finished my sophomore year of college, and high school students around the country are wrapping up their spring semesters—so here’s a novelette about high school, half of which I wrote during my senior year of high school, and half of which I finished after graduating. You can buy it on Smashwords or Amazon. Here’s the synopsis:

In the near future, bioengineering companies create neutralizers—unicellular organisms that can destroy sex hormones in the brain, hopefully improving the academic dedication of students. Silver Path, a new performing arts school, is a pioneer in requiring that its students be neutralized. This kind of environment is perfect for Edward Warwick, a 12th-grader intensely dedicated to acting, and intensely wary of romantic distractions. But over the course of his senior year at Silver Path, it becomes clear that there are many hormones other than testosterone and estrogen, and making it out of high school without any drama may not be as easy as a monthly neutralizer check-up.

The publication also contains an afterword in which I describe how my own final year of secondary education directly lead to, and provided fodder for, this story.

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril

A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books, and today I’m talking about the second-to-last one: The Penultimate PerilThis post will contain spoilers for book 12 and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “allow me to recommend that you put this next-to-last [review] down first, and find something else to read next at last.”

ThePenultimatePeril
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Penultimate Peril is the penultimate book in Unfortunate Events, and it finds the Baudelaires at the Hotel Denouement, a hotel organized by the Dewey decimal system (for example, there are teachers staying in room number 371, the number for schools and school activities in Dewey Decimal Classification.) The Hotel Denouement is the last safe place for VFD, and the secret organization will be meeting there in just two days. The Baudelaires, disguised as concierges, spy on the hotel guests, hoping to discover whether or not the safety of the hotel has been compromised, and whether or not they should give a signal to call off the meeting.

I Won’t Tell You When You’re Older

The Penultimate Peril is full of cameos from characters introduced and exited earlier in the series and one of the characters to return is Sir—known as Sir because his actual name is unpronounceable. Other than his callous attitude toward the workers in his lumber mill, Sir’s defining characteristic is the cloud of cigar smoke that is forever swirling around his head, completely obscuring his face. When I first discussed Sir, I wrote about how he’s a model for what’s to come later in the series—these mysteries that are never solved, secrets that only exist as secrets. Since I’ve finished rereading Unfortunate Events, I’ve been poking around looking at reviews of the series. I’ve seen complaints that not all of the big mysteries were resolved, which makes the last few books kind of disappointing. To those people I would say:

You are less discerning readers than an eight-year-old.

I can’t take away anyone’s reading experience—I don’t think anyone is wrong to say that they were disappointed. I would, however, defend Daniel Handler vigorously from anyone who thinks he dropped the ball. Handler does a lot to signal that these big secrets will never be clarified a hundred percent, and rereading Penultimate Peril, I remember that the sequence with Sir was when I, as an eight-year-old, realized that there were certain things that the thirteenth book still would not divulge. The scene is farcical in the way it conceals Sir’s face. Klaus is spying on Sir and his partner Charles, and he escorts the two to a sauna. Sir orders Klaus to hold his cigar while he goes into the sauna. Francis of 2005 was so excited about this—finally, we get to see Sir’s face! What if he’s actually another character under that smoke? What if he’s a relative of another character? But then, “Sir handed Klaus the cigar and strode into the sauna before the cloud of smoke around his head could clear.” (109) And it was at that moment that I realized that we would never find out what the Sugar Bowl is.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto

As a kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series, and I’ve been rereading all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing my favorite book of the series, book the eleventh, The Grim Grotto.

Grimgrotto.jpg
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Grim Grotto, the Baudelaire orphans join the crew of the Queequeg, a VFD submarine run by Captain Widdershins and his stepdaughter Fiona. The Baudelaires join the Queequeg in its mission to find the Sugar Bowl before Count Olaf does, eventually identifying its location as the Gorgonian Grotto, an underwater cave that contains a lethal, parasitic species of fungus.

Having at this point reread the whole series, I can say that this book is my favorite. The mood and atmosphere is deeply unsettling, there’s lots of great character revelations and development, and the plot is as good as they come—with the Baudelaires actually being proactive instead of reactive, for the first time in the whole series. So, in this post I’m just going to explain exactly why I love this book so much.

Staring Blindly

First off, the mood. I won’t reiterate everything I said about mood in my post on The Ersatz Elevator, but I will retread some of that ground, because The Grim Grotto is doing the same sort of thing. The mood in book 11 is similar to that in book 6, and both are achieved through similar means—they inspire dread by keeping the reader in the dark on the dangers surrounding the characters. In Ersatz Elevator there’s the darkness of the empty elevator shaft, and in Grim Grotto there’s the darkness of the ocean, and the narrow passage leading into the Gorgonian Grotto. While The Ersatz Elevator still outdoes this book in the omnipresent atmosphere of dread, Grim Grotto is a near second, with the oppressive feeling of a cold, dark, unknown world surrounding the Queequeg at all times. The most prominent example of this is what is referred to in a later book as “The Great Unknown”—a gargantuan serpentine shape, larger than the Queequeg and even Count Olaf’s own enormous submarine, which shows up on the Queequeg’s sonar as a question mark. Whatever it is, it’s something that terrifies volunteers and villains alike, and the best view the Baudelaires ever get of it is after nightfall, and “They could not even tell, just as I will not tell, if it was some horrifying mechanical device, such as a submarine, or some ghastly creature of the sea.” (311)Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m writing about The Slippery Slope, the tenth book in the series, as well as meaninglessness and morality.

Slipperyslope
Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

The Slippery Slope is set in the Mortmain Mountains, a chilly range of odd, squarish mountains, home to snow gnats, bears, and the VFD headquarters. The Baudelaire orphans are separated, with Sunny being kidnapped by Count Olaf and taken to the summit of Mount Fraught, and Violet and Klaus left for dead along the road up the mountains. Sunny is forced to cook for and clean up after Count Olaf and his troupe, who are planning to destroy the headquarters of VFD. At the same time, Violet and Klaus are searching for the headquarters, and hoping to rescue their baby sister.

The Slippery Slope is the first book where the reader starts to get some broad ideas of what VFD is, and why so many villains and heroes alike seem involved in it. It also has some incredibly clumsy grappling with morality and what separates good people from bad people. But, to paraphrase a Fernald’s remarks in The Grim Grotto (which does a much better job of handling these themes), books aren’t either good or bad, “they’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together” (223). And Slippery Slope is actually mostly good, so while I will get to the fumbled themes, I’m going to highlight some other parts where it sticks the landing wonderfully. First off:

Xylophone

After being attacked by a swarm of snow gnats, Violet and Klaus take refuge in a cave, and find a group of Snow Scouts camping there. The Snow Scouts quickly welcome Violet and Klaus into their troop, and recite the Snow Scout Alphabet Pledge:

“Snow Scouts … are accommodating, basic, calm, darling, emblematic, frisky, grinning, human, innocent, jumping, kept, limited, meek, nap-loving, official, pretty, quarantined, recent, scheduled, tidy, understandable, victorious, wholesome, xylophone, young, and zippered — every morning, every afternoon, every night, and all day long!” (71)

The pledge recurs throughout the book, sometimes as the Snow Scouts recite it and other times just in reference to its absurdity—however the most pertinent commentary on it comes immediately after the scouts first recite it, when Snicket writes that, “Like many pledges, the Snow Scout Alphabet pledge had not made much sense” (71).Read More »

New Publication: The Only Series that Matters

TOSTM-c-3Well, it’s newish. It’s a collection of all the posts I’ve been making about A Series of Unfortunate Events. If you haven’t been reading them, it’s a series of essays in which I examine each book in A Series of Unfortunate Events upon rereading them a decade after I first fell in love with them as a kid. The essays highlight literary techniques, thematic explorations, and the ideas communicated in these books that have resonated with me from when I first read the series to today.

If you have been reading them, consider purchasing the collection to support posts like these, and the blog in general. The collection holds all the posts that have appeared on this site so far, plus the last four posts that will appear on the site over the course of the next month, polished up and consolidated for the book. It also contains “Chapter Fourteen,” an essay that won’t be published on this blog, discussing my relationship with the series through different parts of my life, and The Appalling Appendix—an index of selected notes, quotes, and observations from the file I kept while rereading the series.

Currently it’s available on Amazon, and UPDATE: it is now available on Smashwords!

Recommendation Dump, April 2017

It’s been a while since I did one of these, huh? Well, I’ve got some stuff to recommend, so I’m doing another one—here we go!

Democrats — Democrats is a documentary detailing the creation a new Zimbabwean constitution from 2009-2013, and especially the negotiations between the chief negotiators for the incumbent and the opposition party—Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora respectively. The film is phenomenal.

The documentary is presented with little editorializing, no retrospective interviews, and only occasional clips from news broadcasts to provide summary. The meat of it is incredibly candid interactions between party members and footage of the actual negotiation process. When I say incredibly candid, I mean that at one point Mangwana and another party official are openly talking about the fact that ZANU-PF—their party, the party of President Mugabe—has been bussing in party supporters to local meetings that they shouldn’t be a part of. The two are laughing, the official saying, “We can’t control that,” and Mangwana saying, “No, that’s ZANU-PF at work.”Read More »

New Publication: Boom Town

I’ve just published “Boom Town,” a short story available on Smashwords and Amazon.

boomtown-4The story takes place in a small town on the living planet of Eltru, when a vast reserve of fuel is discovered beneath the town. Katherine, a young girl whose family lives on a spice farm over the fuel reserve, quietly observes her parents as they struggle over whether or not to sell their land to a mining corporation, and move away from their home. She relies on her close relationship with her brother to help her understand the secret conflicts and tensions between the adults, and ends up keeping some dangerous secrets of Julian’s herself.

The publication includes an afterward where I describe how subscribing to Asimov’s influenced the story, and my writing sensibilities as a whole.

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival

I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events when I read it as a kid, and now I’m rereading and re-loving all thirteen books. Today’s post is about The Carnivorous Carnival, the ninth book of the series. This post will contain spoilers for book 9 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then in the words of Lemony Snicket, “your time might be better filled with something more palatable, such as eating your vegetables, or feeding them to someone else.”

Carnivorous_Carnival
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Carnivorous Carnival, the Baudelaires arrive at a rundown carnival in the hinterlands, where Count Olaf is consulting the fortune-teller Madame Lulu to learn the location of the Baudelaires, and whether or not one of their parents survived the fire. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny disguise themselves as carnival freaks, and try to discover how Madame Lulu knows so much about the Baudelaires, and perhaps pre-empt Count Olaf’s next move. Count Olaf also helps Madame Lulu by trying to raise the popularity of the carnival, letting one of his henchmen direct the freak show and make sure the freaks are properly humiliating themselves, and installing a pit of lions.

The book is sparkling with amusing, vibrant characters, from the mysterious Madame Lulu to Kevin, whose big, freakish, shameful quality is that he is ambidextrous (“Is that why you traveled out here to the hinter-lands, so you could stare at somebody who can write his name with either his left hand or his right?”—hilarious. [66]) It’s strikes the perfect tone for a book about a carnival—colorful, eccentric, and with a strong undercurrent of sadness and danger. It also provides a great opportunity for me to talk about:

#FakeNews

In my post about The Vile Village I explained the differences between the books in the first half of the series, and the books in the second. Another difference, which I didn’t mention then, is the nature of the unfortunate events. In the first half, the unfortunate event at the end of every installment is Count Olaf getting away. This is continued into the second half, but also combined with the the Baudelaires repeatedly failing to uncover the mysteries of VFD, and more and more misinformation about them spreading with each book.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, March 2017

Plays and comics! I’ve been reading a bunch of plays and comics lately. I’m in a playwriting class, and I’m reading a bunch of plays for a project for another class, and the comics I’m reading because they’re light and I really can’t squeeze in too much extra reading given all the Lemony Snicket books I’m reading, not to mention short stories and essays and poems for another class—anyway, here are some of the plays and comics that have really been stand-out terrific, and worth writing about:

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee – This is a play about a man who is cheating on his wife with a goat.

Hahaha, lololol, such fun.

Really, the brilliance of this play is that it is both as ridiculous as that description and as real as the chair I’m seated in (I’m seated in a chair of the real variety, by the way.) And the super-brilliance of the play is the fact that it doesn’t just violently switch tracks between isn’t-this-absurd-you’re-in-love-with-a-goat and what-are-the-real-and-tragic-implications-of-doing-such-a-thing, it runs the two modes simultaneously. I was constantly bursting out laughing and constantly taking sharp inhales throughout reading this play. I reacted to it in the same way I react to horribly-absurd/absurdly-horrible real world events. I have to laugh at the absurdity, but I can’t get away from the horrible reality of it because it’s something that actually happened, in the world I live in.

Albee’s great accomplishment here is that he never lets the audience put distance between themselves and the work. The characters continually make choices, adopt lines of conversation, that ring so true that you can’t just think, well it’s just a silly play.

And the play was written by Edward Albee, so it’s crackling with his wit and dynamic character interactions.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Hostile Hospital

When I was a kid, I adored A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing book 8, The Hostile Hospital. This post will contain spoilers for book 8 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “this [review] is something best left on the ground, where you undoubtedly found it.”

Hostile_hospital
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In this eighth installment of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves at Heimlich Hospital, a half-constructed hospital in the middle of nowhere, which inexplicably contains a massive library of records. The Baudelaires manage to get jobs filing paperwork in the library of records, all the while hoping to find some information on the mysterious organization VFD, or the murky circumstances surrounding the destruction of their home and the death of their parents. The treacherous Count Olaf has also arrived at the hospital, though for what purpose the Baudelaires do not know.

Reading to the Rescue!

One of the greatest aspects of Unfortunate Events, which is especially great to find in children’s literature, is the dramatization of reading. Throughout the series, literature and language is used to thwart villains, crack secret codes, and gain an advantage against the Baudelaires’ antagonists. Certainly, plenty of fiction involves characters reading or studying things—Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately jump to mind—but in those cases, reading is just a means to deliver knowledge upon which to take some other action (magic, fighting, confronting another character.) In ASOUE, reading is presented in a much more dynamic way, and it often is the action itself. There’s no scene in Harry Potter where the reader feels tension wondering whether or not the characters will fail to read, but there are multiple such scenes in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The reason I bring this up with this book is that The Hostile Hospital contains more Reading to the Rescue!TM than any other book—it is consistently the way the Baudelaires pursue their goals, and attempt to save themselves from the schemes of others. Not only does the book prominently feature reading and language, it also presents multiple facets of these activities, instead of just the typical studying that every book in the series contains.Read More »

New Publication: Grumbles

I’ve just published “Grumbles,” a short story available on Smashwords and Amazon.

cover-4The story  is told by Claudio, who returns to the house of his uncle Terrance, one of his many guardians during his tumultuous childhood, to decide what memorabilia he wants to take with him on his move to the asteroid belt. As he sifts through old scrapbooks and toys, he re-discovers “Grumbles,” a robot companion from his adolescence with an acerbic, sardonic attitude. Space is limited on the shuttle out to the belt, so Claudio and Grumbles argue heatedly about which objects are worth taking, and which items present a distorted recording of the past.

The story was originally published in Kzine, and you can still purchase the issue it appeared in.

So Francis, why should I buy this thing, when I can buy another thing, which has the first thing in it, as well as other things for no additional cost?

Because you love me? Also, because this publication includes an afterword describing the origin of the story, the process of editing it, and some of my own memory-recording habits.

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing the seventh book, The Vile Village. This post will contain spoilers for book seven and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “you may prefer to do some other solemn and sacred thing, such as reading another [review] instead.”

vile_village
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Vile Village is a turning point in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It falls in the exact middle of the thirteen-part series, and narratively speaking, it has one foot in the first half of the series and one foot in the second half. Just like all the previous books, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with a new guardian—in this case, an entire village standing in as a guardian, the Village of Fowl Devotees. VFD is governed by the Council of Elders, a group of old townspeople who have generated thousands of rules that must be strictly obeyed. And, the same as the last five books, Count Olaf shows up in disguise to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance. The book ratchets up the stakes and the tension of all the previous books, in addition to having all the usual dark creativity, verbal gymnastics, and intriguing mysteries.

So, what separates this book from all the books of the first half?

Half and Half

Before I answer that question, I should first explain what I mean by “first half” and “second half.” This is a deeply ingrained framework in my head for understanding A Series of Unfortunate Events. The first half is books 1-6, and kind of book 7. The second half is books 8-13, and kind of book 7. The reason that book 7 doesn’t fall firmly into either category isn’t just because of the imperfect math—it’s because it shares characteristics with both halves. So hopefully I can take this opportunity both to highlight the transitional nature of The Vile Village and delineate the characteristics of the first and second half.Read More »