Saturday, October 27, 2007

Banned Book Week Update: Scary!

In honor of 2007 Banned Book Week, I read Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

And boy, were they scary! Some of them were remixes of urban legends, which should be old news and schmaltzy. Au contraire. They were very well-edited, and I made the mistake of reading them when I was alone. I returned the book to the library the next day so it wouldn't scare me. (Had it not been a library book, I'd have put it in the freezer.) The cover of the book alone should have been a warning.....

I have been on a scary story kick lately.

I am reading Heart-Shaped Box, a chapter a night, aloud with David. Scary from the first chapter, people. Lois warned me, so I was prepared and got myself a reading buddy. My advice: don't read it alone. David and I are nine chapters in, so I'll let you know how it evolves.

I can recommend The Nature of Monsters, a book about an apothecary in 1700s England who wanted to prove maternal imprinting on unborn children. The story is very much a period piece, and it's creepy enough around the edges that when the creepiness works itself into the center of the story, it's shocking and intense. If you are a fan of Britannia, absolutely read this book — but check it out from the library. Unless you're a huge fan of Britain, you might not want to keep this one.

I also read Benefits, a feminist science fiction book that is scary in its own right. Click here to read the review.

I plan to read the short story "1408" from Everything's Eventual, a Stephen King short story collection. I have stopped reading recent King works because I find his work very "insider," as though if I was a true fan I'd know the story without having to read it (Lisey's Story) or gory beyond belief from the first page (The Cell). However, after seeing the movie "1408," I have every intention of finding out how true the fantastic screenplay is to the short story. The movie is vintage King: smart, intense, a little over-the-top but in a way that brings the audience along rather than drown the poor souls. I'll let you know what I think about the story.

Finally, I have another novel in my book stack that sounds creepy: Mistress of the Art of Death.

However, I might have to take a break from the creepy and read something lighter. Any suggestions? Leave me a comment!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Explicit Means Never Having to Ask, "What the &$%#@?"

I'm hip. Okay: I am a hipster doofus.

Be that as it may, I don't get shocked by strong language.

If anything, I think it can be used very effectively under the best circumstances. A couple of years ago, I took twice as long to recover from a fall that occurred in front of a 2-year-old because I couldn't say the only word that would make it all better. (Had she not been there, I'd have cursed a blue streak and probably wouldn't have had to go to the doctor because my knee wouldn't have felt as shattered after that much swearing.)

I've never been a big swearer, though I was ridiculous as a teen. Once, I tried writing an emotional story in which the strongest language the grief-stricken characters could use was, "Shoot!" As that sentence came out of my pen, I knew I wasn't ready to write that story, or any story that required realistic language.

Can one write without using swear words? In some contexts, yes. In fact, using foul language in some circumstances shows a lack of creativity. In other circumstances, there are no other words. The true test of a good writer is to know the difference.

This being said, I'm not opposed to purchasing albums with "explicit" lyrics. I'm a fan of Uncle Kracker, and one of his "explicit" albums has a single song on it with some pretty strong language. I just skip that song if I'm in the office or if I don't want another audience member to hear it. (I don't want to be on this planet when Conor tells his mom he learned that word from Aunt Kwis!)

Fergie, on the other hand, has songs so laced with profanity it's impossible to listen to them without blushing. I didn't understand why Yahoo! Video had what was titled the "Oh Snap!" version of "London Bridges" until I heard the other version. I almost got why the other word (replace "nap" with "hit") was there. It was the exclamation at the end that was totally unnecessary: the word popularly referred to as the F-bomb coupled with the term for female dogs.

killed the song for me. I couldn't comfortably play the song for Nikki, David's 17-year-old daughter, or my 15-year-old friend Corinne. "Honey, it's okay for men to dismiss confident women with profanity and disrespect. Here, let's listen to it together." Yep, that would play.

The other popular songs had a little profanity in them, but nothing that was distressing — wait, there's that phrase she tossed out in "Glamorous" that I don't like. And what's the line in "Fergalicious" that always makes me wince?

So, I did something I never had done before: I purchased the "clean" versions of a couple of Fergie songs from iTunes. At first I told myself it was so I could listen to the album comfortably in mixed company. Then I realized the truth: I myself could do without the gratuitous language.

Now, when an album is labeled explicit, I am going to have to think long and hard about whether I want to listen to it. I respect an artist's freedom of expression, but I don't have to listen to it if I find its value more gratuitous than appropriate.

If I have to ask, "How explicit?" I'd better step away from the CD rack — 'cause if you have to ask, you shouldn't be buying it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not Every Good Poem is a Puppy Poem....

.... but it is good.

Thanks to Bob for sharing the poem (which also was on The Writer's Almanac). The poem is fabulous, but a little startling. Tell me what you think — post your comments to this blog!

The God Who Loves You

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you'd be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week--
Three fine houses sold to deserving families--
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you'd have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you're living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don't want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day's disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You'd have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you're used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You're spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven't written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you've witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you've chosen.

- by Carl Dennis from the book Practical Gods

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hannah Montana Saves the Day in Kansas City!

Anyone who has tried to purchase tickets to the hottest shows lately has felt the sting. Bruce Springsteen, Hannah Montana — how can these tickets sell out in such a short time? Who's behind it?

Well, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is looking into it, as are lawmakers in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, and Ticketmaster is going to court against RMG Technologies, accused of writing software benefitting ticket brokers — plus putting a good faith effort into ticket availability.

Now, let's see a little more action on that front around the nation's capitol. When the average Joe or Josephine can't get in to see "Spamalot," Springsteen, "Wicked" or Hannah Montana, there's a rat involved — especially when scalped tickets spring up the same day for exponentially more money.

If scalping is illegal, how can these companies sell their tickets at exorbitant prices? I see ads for them all over. I know that the most expensive Springsteen ticket at the Verizon Center was less than $100. Add in processing fees and it's still so much less than the advertised price in the Arts section of the Post. Is anyone paying attention?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The '80s Live On In Us All

This afternoon, I watched The Legwarmers perform. I had heard tell by a fan or two that the group was a lot of fun, and my curiosity was piqued. I had seen a photo of the band, so my Skept-o-Meter™ was on high. Did the group's authenticity end with the headband and skinny tie?

(Go ahead, check out the Web site. I will wait.)

See what I mean? It could go either way.

Well, I am here to tell you that everyone in the audience was singing along and bobbing heads to the music, from those who came of age in the 1980s to those who have to listen to "classic rock" stations to get their Van Halen on. We couldn't keep our feet still, nor our fannies. We clapped, we sang, we danced. I myself nearly lept into the fray of dancing bodies when "Love Shack" started, but I was carrying a library book and figured Mike was a little busy actually running the festival to tend to the library's book.

The performance was a lot of fun, and I can recommend this group to anyone who wants a rockin' good time with songs of their youth. (Or, as Mike put it, "PROM!" — because every single person of a particular generation heard those songs in similar settings.)

I also noticed a phenomenon: older people rocking out. Now, before you berate me as ageist, let me explain: these people were dancing with their second and third generation friends and family members, so they were not teens. When someone completely gray is on the verge of an impromptu air guitar solo performance during "You Give Love A Bad Name," he is much older now than he was when the song was first released. ("He" because women don't do air guitar.) (In public, that is.)

When I think of grandparents, I think of my father — and when I see people who remind me of my father, I do not think "David Lee Roth" (or even the pensioner Mick Jagger). "Grandparents" I grew up with were the fans of Benny Goodman, Montovani, the stuff of which "elevator music" is made. My dad, may he rest in peace, was of a different generation. Those of his generation would no sooner rock out in an air guitar solo than remove their trousers (on purpose) on the dance floor.

So, needless to say, I have to think differently when I think of people old enough to be grandparents. I guess I have to think of my friend Beth, who could be a grandmother any time, with her children in their 20s. My friend Carole with two teenagers could be a grandmother in the next decade — though Collin and Corinne won't really want to date with Aunt Chris accompanying them on every date through their graduate school years. (No, I'm not protective.)

Long story short, my generation is getting to the point where I have to view its members differently. My contemporaries are getting older.

Waaaaaaait a minute: what does that say about me?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Howl Against Censorship

Half a decade ago, Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl was considered obscene. Publishing it was a criminal act, and reading it was even worse.

Fifty years ago last week, an American judge ruled that it was a "work of literary and social merit."

Listen to the late poet read his famous poem, and listen to some of the best minds of his generation discussing it and the situation surrounding it.

For those of you who are not familiar with this poem, a recommendation: it is not work- or child-friendly, so listen accordingly. But do listen. Howl helped launch and define the Beat movement in poetry and is revolutionary in its own right.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Banned Book Week: September 29 - October 6

As a child, I was a voracious reader. I left the children's section of the library at a very young age (and am making up for it now by reading youth and juvenile fiction — let that be a lesson to you, young reader!).

My parents never really told me what I could read, although my dad thought I was a little young at age 7 to understand "pregnant lips" in Sonnets from the Portuguese (though I suspect it's because my questions embarrassed him). I always showed my library books to my mom, who, when I was 11, did tell me she thought I should wait until I was older to read Helter Skelter.

Because of that freedom, I cannot imagine someone else telling me what I should be allowed to read.

Public libraries are the great equalizer, giving people access to many books, periodicals — and, through them, ideas. It's not up to the library to police its readers, but up to the readers (or, in the case of young readers, their parents) to determine what they themselves will read.

In short: if you don't like it, don't read it — and don't tell me what I can read. And by banning books from the public library, "concerned citizens" are doing just that.

Intellectual freedom is not something only the wealthy may attain because they can afford to buy the books banned from the libraries. And despite arguments to the contrary, most rational people can tell the difference between Heather Has Two Mommies and Hustler magazine.

The argument that public funds should not be used to purchase "objectionable material" is ludicrous. I've read government budgets. Talk about obscene! Pork barrel projects alone are more objectionable than And Tango Makes Three. A close look at the content of your local government budget or capital improvements program report can shock you more than Are you There, God? It's Me, Margaret.

I'm not even keen on computer filters that prevent people from accessing Web sites. Sensitive filters prevent access to important and perfectly tame materials, kind of like the e-mail filter that "junked" my e-mail to Carole because I used the word "love." (Really.) Library computers should be in a very public place in plain sight of librarians and other library patrons — who, if someone goes somewhere inappropriate and starts watching live, er, "things you wouldn't watch in front of your grandmother," will object and the offender will be stopped.

If you think your fellow patrons will be silent, just remember: these are the same people who have tried to ban Go Ask Alice and everything Harry Potter.

The week of September 29 through October 6 is Banned Book Week, and the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom suggests people all read one or more of the books on the Top 10 Banned Books list.

I read The Chocolate War when I was a young adult, and I was amazed at its power. I also read three books that were bumped from this year's list: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye.

I plan to visit my library tomorrow to check out one of the books on this year's list — or on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-2000. Hopefully I'll have to put the book on hold because it's been checked out already.

Friday, October 5, 2007

It's Out! Why Didn't You Tell Me?

You know life has gotten way too hectic when you're surprised to discover Bruce Springsteen released his CD already and you don't have it yet.

Oh, I show a little restraint. I don't haunt the NJ record stores on release days. I don't sleep in line to get show tickets (not that I haven't seriously considered it, but employment and comfort have their attractions) (or David hasn't offered). I don't own every single one of his albums. But I make an effort to pay attention to the happenings of The Boss and the E Street Band.

And on this week, I was too preoccupied to realize the date.

I was out taking photos when the band's tickets went on sale (see employment reference above), so by the time I got on the horn, I was out of luck. I knew it was a long shot; after all, Belfast sold out in less than a half hour, so what hope did I have of getting a ticket on the East Coast? I was in good company: most of my fellow Brucians had multiple lines going and also were shut out. I know of only one person who actually got tickets, and I'm trying to figure out exactly what he promised to the Dark Lord for those tickets.

So, on my way out to see Karen tomorrow, I'll stop by my Borders to pick up the CD (and chew them out for not notifying me that my pre-ordered disc was in the store!).

And I will find solace in the last Bruce concert I saw: The Rising, September 2002. It was incredible. I also will find solace in the memory of seeing him close the "Born in the USA" tour, the evening when I became a believer. After all, how good could he be if he was that popular? (As you can tell, I don't find the general populace very discerning in many instances.) However, that evening with Bruce in Los Angeles, I realized that no matter who else I saw in concert in the future, no show could top The Boss.

So I will enjoy his new album and, in November, call the only person I know who got tickets to the local show. And wonder if maybe a trip to Barcelona is in my future. I have a passport, airfare is cheap and maybe the Spaniards haven't gotten the fever yet....

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How the Small Screen Keeps Shrinking

The real estate of a television screen is pretty precious these days.

The last time I checked, there was a station identification logo in the bottom right of the screen (known in the biz as a bug) plus a banner at the bottom of the screen telling you what you were watching and what was coming up next. A few times during a show, the bottom of the screen would come to life with characters of upcoming shows moving around and staring at you — and, if you were lucky, a little NASCAR action with race cars darting about the bottom third of the screen. (Those NASCAR moments are called snipes, by the way.)

All this while the show you tried to watch was actually playing. In the background.

At first, it was network television. Then even the cable networks started doing it.

That was one of the things that made it easy to give up television.

Apparently, this is not only an ongoing trend, but one that promises to become both more entrenched and invasive (“As the Fall Season Arrives, TV Screens Get More Cluttered,” New York Times, September 24, 2007).

Watching television during my pedicure this afternoon allowed me to witness this debacle first-hand. On CNN, there was a news scroll across the bottom of the screen. On top of that was a financial display with odd sets of numbers. Layer three was the station identification logo and the speaker’s name (newscaster, guest, whomever). Then on layer four was the title of the news piece being discussed — and stacked on that was a rectangle with the name of the speaker, if the screen was replaced with a video clip.

When the newscaster was speaking, the upper right of the screen was dedicated to a smaller screen with live video or still photos of the news story being covered.

The pièce de résistance was the closed captioning that covered the top of the screen with three rows of badly spelled copy, presumably what the newscasters were saying. (The volume was off, so I cannot be certain.)

And I wonder why anyone bothers to watch television anymore. There is not enough screen for the program.

Commercials, on the other hand, seem to get the entire screen. Commercials seem to tell viewers how dirty and smelly they or their homes are, or how other viewers have lost weight, so you can, too — and here’s how.

Television programmers honestly think we need that kind of frantic pace on a television channel. The “next generation” of consumer, teens and young adults, are very used to it, they say.

These same programmers seem to forget who earns the paycheck in the household. The ‘tween watching “That’s So Raven” does not have the purchasing power — unless they really think the typical 11-year-old is buying the cars and the Viagra and the feminine hygiene products and laundry soap being sold between programs.

I didn’t think so.

On the other hand, the printed page has a lot less frantic activity. (Usually. Unless the reader is really tired, then all bets are off as to what the page will look like.)