Thursday, December 20, 2012

(Review) Dexter Palmer's "The Dream of Perpetual Motion"

Dexter Palmer, 353pgs

Based on the descriptions I'd heard of this one, I came into it with incredibly high hopes - and I was not disappointed. It became immediately clear to me that this novel was the culmination of some of my favorite things: "Alice in Wonderland" meets Terry Gilliam's "Brazil"...but written by a more adult-minded Roald Dahl. And I realize how grand that all sounds, but Palmer's first (first!) novel lives up to the description.

"This is the time of night just before sunrise, the time that no one owns, and if you have found yourself awake and alone during this time, out in the city, outside the safety of the walls you call your own, then you know me, and you have felt what I have felt. This is the hour of the night it's best to sleep through, for if it catches you awake then it will force you to face what is true. This is when you look into the half-dead eyes of those who are either wishing for sleep or shaking off its final remnants and see you see the signs of the twilight in which your own mind is suspended."

While the skeletal parts of this book are typical of the heroic journey (see: Joseph Campbell), this fantastically surreal bit of fractured storytelling keeps things interesting. Many of the main characters of the novel take their names from Shakespeare's "The Tempest": Prospero Taligent, the father and technological Willy Wonka of this world, Miranda, the daughter locked up in her father's 150-floor tower in the middle of the city, and Caliban, the monster of a son put together Frankenstein-like through the pieces of cadavers and kept in a hanging cage locked deep within the 101st floor of the tower.

But it is our protagonist, Harold Winslow, penning this memoir from a zeppelin flying high above the city, that takes center stage. The novel begins with a young Harold Winslow living with his father and sister in an apartment. While out at the boardwalk carnival nearby, Harold is seduced by an exhibit called The Camera Obscura, which is a telescope pointed directly at Miranda's bedroom deck in the Taligent Tower. But like Jack and his beanstalk, Harold gives all his money to the two men running the exhibit in exchange for a whistle which will supposedly get him invited to Taligent Tower to see the reclusive and mysterious Miranda in person.

Prospero Taligent has flooded the world with androids and robots and other mechanical worker beings, trying to achieve what every other inventor has tried to over the years: giving the inanimate a soul, or at least finding the closest approximation, while easing the strains of life on humans. He is beyond rich and his intellect is far greater than anyone else's within the city. And at the moment, he is trying to plan a birthday party for a ten year old Miranda. The men at The Camera Obscura have sold 100 whistles to curious children: 50 boys and 50 girls, each one invited to the party should they actually blow their whistle. That night, Harold blows the whistle.

Harold is whisked off to the party by one of Taligent's robot creations a few days later and finds himself struggling to talk to Miranda at any part of the day. While most of the other children are fighting amongst themselves or being egregiously impolite, Harold continues to be on his best behavior. This lights something up within Prospero, who later pulls Harold out of his regular studies at school in order to give his daughter Miranda a playmate/school mate. All of Harold's lessons are now taken at Taligent Tower.

Things go well for awhile between the two children as they explore the vast and surreal nature of the 150-floor tower. Then they become so close that they kiss, for which Prospero promptly tosses him out and refuses to let him see Miranda ever again.

Fast-forward ten years; Harold works for a greeting card company. His sister Astrid is a nearly world-famous installation artist. His father no longer works and hoards newspapers in their old apartment. The events that unfold from here on out are thought-provoking and more than a little dark. Our anti-hero, Harold, still unable to really make a decision about his life, finds that his every move is being planned out for him. Each action that he makes is one that he was supposed to make; someone is trying to get him to save Miranda from her father's control.

This is the story of an unlikely hero versus a kind of ambiguously dangerous villain. To be sure, having your life controlled by another is a disconcerting feeling at best, but placing this narrative next to the (unfortunately) anemic depiction of Astrid's life shows a stark contrast between the two siblings. And what becomes of Astrid is absolutely jaw-dropping when it happens, which is why I wanted to see more of her in the last part of the book, or at least like her as a character a little more.

But the main thrust of the novel feels like the dissolution of hope through aging. Prospero has performed numerous experiments to keep his daughter young, going so far as to employ a full-time artist to capture the essence of Miranda in physical form for all time. Harold, the anti-hero, is only a little more bold, but not by much. We see the world through his eyes; an aging father with a cluttered home, a sister who still remains bratty and stuck-up, a world that is moving slowly from human-made products and services to machine-made products and services.

But what about Harold's presence on the zeppelin? you may be asking yourself. Well, once Harold (the knight) sets off to save Miranda (the damsel in distress) from Prospero (the villain), the reluctant hero remains reluctant and never truly becomes a hero. The ending of the book is a miniscule let down compared to all that came before it. While this particular story arc is one we've read (and seen) a thousand times before, Palmer's prose swells on the page. His descriptions of some of the inventions and strange landscapes sometimes wanders around and becomes clunky, but his dialogue and exposition in general are spot on.

This was truly a quick and phenomenal read. I probably spent four days getting through it on the train ride into work and back home again. It's an easy one to get sucked into and I hope Palmer releases another book soon.

"Because a subtle shift in the balance of the hormones that saturated your brain was necessary but not sufficient to change you into an adult. It was the noise that the world shoveled into your head that finally made you into a man, wasn't it? Isn't it the sounds out of people's mouths that make us feel we've aged months in minutes? Her tits look great; you hear that for the first time and it ages you. I think you should sit down for this; you hear that and it ages you. The rattle of the tax collector's clearing throat ages you. The curse of the climaxing woman pinned beneath you ages you. The snap of the chicken's neck as it's prepared for the cooking pot ages you. It is not the bending of your bones but the noises of the world that make you grow old, and turn your heart to a block of granite in your chest, and make everyone's head like mine is. Filled with noise and filth."

(23, 912)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

(Review) Salvador Plascencia's "The People of Paper"

Oh metafiction...sometimes you unerringly fail to create something worth reading. Other times, you pop up in books like "The People of Paper" and create a whirlwind of hallucinatory imagery, magical realism-esque elements of the fantastic, and discuss loves lost and won through the battle of man versus the gods. And it is so, so good.

Until I opened this book and looked at the formatting, I couldn't ever remember hearing about it until recently. But I realized that my first workshop professor at USF, Stephen Beachy (author of "boneyard" and who blogs at Living Jelly) presented some excerpts of this book in one of our classes. I remember enjoying what I read, but couldn't really grasp the concept or the formatting at the time. This was well before I began playing with the fracturing of text and format in service of the story.

But I haven't been able to put this book down since it arrived in the mail a few days ago.

On earth, origami surgeons create paper organs for people in need of transplants; a bed-wetting father watches his wife leave him before moving to California with his daughter; that same father gathers support from the local gang and wages war on Saturn, believing him to be the reason his wife left; a whore made completely of paper who leaves scars on the tongues of her lovers; a baby Nostradamus predicts the future and speaks to children in blacked out messages; lovers come and lovers go, all dancing around each other through the haze of war-time.

In the heavens, Saturn's identity is revealed; the book itself, considered "the war," is funded by a rich, older couple; the author writes because of his own lost love while loving another; Saturn's lover is addicted to the sting of bees.

"When in the house of Saturn there are things an EMF member must do, instructions were given to us, drawn up under roofs of lead. Things to be done if one is ever lucky enough to be in proximity of the enemy. The carnation knife must be pulled out of the waistband and then put to the throat of Saturn, dragging the blade across the skin and stubble of his neck, letting his ink drip. Because if that is what he wants, to write, let him write his own blood letter on the cloth and foam of his mattress. A dense, warm prose that stains the floors and always reappears six coats of paint later. Something that will remain longer than any novel will. 

At the very least, if rushed, steal the plot lines and the hundred and five pages that have been written. Leave nothing behind but the title page and table of contents, on which you write, 'You are not so powerful.'"

Plascencia's debut novel (published in 2006), reads like a string of never-ending obituaries. For most of the book, the text is presented in single columns for each character, usually two to a page (but only one column on one page, the left, for Saturn's passages). These are spaced intermittently with longer passages presented in the more standard fashion of formatting with text filling the page in full sentences and paragraphs.

Ultimately, this is a grand soap opera on a massive scale. The movements between the characters on the ground becomes an obvious allegory for the movements between characters in Saturn's world; there is a mirror-imagery that becomes more apparent the deeper one dives into the novel. This in itself becomes a kind of critique of writing (and writers themselves) that I've experienced in the past: how much of ourselves finds itself on the pages of our stories? How do our characters reflect the people of our lives outside of writing?

I worried that this metafictional trope would be used to ill effect by the time I finished the book, but Plascencia does a fantastic job of weaving the two worlds into each other beautifully and with an imagination many would kill to have. Rather than focus on answering the questions of the novel vs. real life, Plascencia digs in and gets into the tiny cracks and rivulets that make up the relationships (no matter how solid or fractured) of the characters introduced throughout these pages. By the time one finishes the book, it's hard to figure if there is a true protagonist or true antagonist relationship between anyone.

While mentioned in small spurts, the use of a whore made of paper who ends up inadvertently leaving cuts on her lovers, becomes the main point of the book: as lovers, we leave scars on those we come in contact with. What those people do with those scars and how they feel about us after is entirely up to them.

Ralph and Elisa Landing
"We came to see the war that we funded. We read the field reports; with our fingers we followed the path of Saturn over maps that illustrated the topography of land and the perilous terrain of love. 
But that was on paper. And if we had learned anything from this story it was to be cautious of paper - to be mindful of its fragile construction and sharp edges, but most mostly to be cautious of what is written on it."


Thursday, December 6, 2012

R.I.P. - Dave Brubeck, Jazz Legend

December 6, 1920 - December 5, 2012

Brubeck Family Statement:
Our much loved and revered father, Dave Brubeck died of cardiac arrest today, December 5, 2012, one day before his 92nd birthday. He died peacefully with family present. The news spread before we even left Norwalk Hospital and our family is deeply appreciative of the phone calls, messages of condolence and continuing tributes in the media and those received personally, certainly a reflection back to us of Dave’s powerful and positive impact on the world. He specialized in long relationships; married to our mother for 70 years, had few changes of personnel in his outstanding quartets or in professional management and many of his fans became personal friends he knew for decades. We thank you all for your appreciation of him and the respect you have shown our family.

Darius, Chris, Dan, Catherine and Matthew Brubeck


Friday, November 30, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut Term Paper Assignment

A dear friend of mine that teaches at a boy's school in Baltimore sent this link to me today. I was never much for Vonnegut's work; not that I didn't appreciate his entries and influence over the entire canon, I just never felt an affinity to his work that others have. Regardless, I had a professor in my undergrad philosophy department that gave us take home mid-terms and finals that read a bit like this, which I always appreciated. The creative effort put forth by the professor tended to, at least personally, bring a bit of joy to an otherwise dreary piece of the semester. It also forced me to be more creative which meant I really had to know the material. There was an onus placed on us students to go above and beyond the normal test-taking mentality and create something worth reading.

David Foster Wallace (a favorite of mine) also had fun with his classes. His syllabi can be found HERE.

I think if more professors were able (or willing, really) to present these kinds of fun/creative educational hurdles to climb, we would find ourselves with a vastly different kind of educated graduate being flung out into the world. I also think it would be to the world's benefit.

and ultimately, from Dan Wakefield's book Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

November 30, 1965
This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children ...”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.

And should you be curious about the stories contained in the book discussed, you can find the list below. A couple friends thought this was a cool enough idea to actually do it on our own time, so...looks like I've got a little project to get into during the next few weeks.

John Galsworthy "The Apple-Tree" 39
Saki (H. H. Munro "The Seventh Pullet 104
W. Somerset Maugham "Lord Mountdrago" 112
A. E. Coppard "Arabesque: The Mouse" 141
E. M. Forster "The Celestial Omnibus" 150
James Joyce "A Little Cloud" 170
Virginia Woolf "The New Dress" 187
D. H. Lawrence "The Rocking-Horse Winner" 197
Katherine Mansfield "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" 216
Stella Benson "The Desert Islander" 242
Aldous Huxley "The Claxtons" 266
Edith Wharton "The Debt" 300
Sherwood Anderson "Brother Death" 318
Ring Lardner "Harmony" 338
Conrad Aiken "Mr. Arcularis" 361
Wilbur Daniel Steele "For They Do Not Know What They Do" 385
Katherine Anne Porter "Maria Concepción" 409
William Faulkner "The Bear" 433
Stephen Vincent Benét "Too Early Spring" 453
Ernest Hemingway "My Old Man" 470
John Steinbeck "Flight" 487
William Saroyan "The Pomegranate Trees" 511
Eudora Welty "Old Mr. Marblehall" 526


Monday, November 26, 2012

(Review) Chris Adrian's "A Better Angel"

About two years ago, while doing some drunken book shopping with Surya at City Lights Books in North Beach, I stumbled across Chris Adrian's second novel, "The Children's Hospital," and was completely fascinated with the story. A kind of Noah's ark, but with a hospital and set in modern times. I wish I could say that I've completed the book, but I haven't...yet. It's fat and dense and completely interesting.

But my ever-changing, ever-adapting taste has moved to reading more short story collections at the moment since that's the kind of project I'm working on now. I started writing poetry in my younger days, moved to flash fiction, then right on into full novel-length manuscripts when I realized my poetry was pretty awful. So when I found myself, yet again, doing some drunken book shopping at City Lights, I stumbled across this collection of Adrian's that I'd never heard of before. I pulled it off the shelf, read the back, and immediately bought it.

Adrian is a bit of an odd duck; not only is he a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, but he is also a doctor now finishing up a pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at the University of California in San Francisco. This is all to say, the guy is no slouch and his writing shows it. Even when he brings up a lot of medical terminology (which I have zero clue about), it feels natural and essential to the story rather than bogging down the text, which I appreciated immensely. The jargon added to the stories; it never hampered them.

I'm envious of Adrian's imagination; it's far out there and certainly pushes a few boundaries, much in the way I like to think my own writing aspires to do as well. While there was almost an overbearing relation to the events of 9/11 in some of the stories, I didn't seem to mind (even having just read DeLillo's "Falling Man" right before, itself an entire novel based around the events of that day eleven years ago).

Even with his obviously elevated educational pedigree, Adrian comes at the reader in a simple, but fantastic, way. It would be easy for him to slather on the thesaurus-worthy verbage or use entirely too large phrasing to make the same point, but he avoids this and it's to his credit. A 26-page story reads like a fraction of that length and still packs the right amount of punch. These stories ride that fine line between dark and twisted, never really venturing too far off to either side, but stradling each perfectly without the possibility of alienating the uninitiated reader.

What struck me the most about each story was the foil each main character seemed to have with them. In the title story, "A Better Angel," the son of a dying father is followed around by a kind of mythical conscience/guardian angel from an early age. She attempts to keep him on the "right" path, but as he ages and their relationship continues, she reveals that not all people with angels turn into good people. But she is always there, always playing against him and he against her.

"Yet awakening lust wasn't the problem, though eventually the lust that awakened made me a monster and a fiend, and I would waste, and still waste, half my life in thrall to it, screwing whoever would hold still for me in high school and forever beyond, to the exclusion of work and food and sleep, but never of drugs."

"The Sum of Our Parts" was an absolutely beautiful execution of moving from character to character to character and getting into each mindset before flowing into the next through action and dialogue. It's a technique I've always wanted to try myself and Adrian absolutely nails it through the interactions of hospital lab techs and their inner desires for each other. Imagine a room full of sexual tension where no one is attracted to the people they want attracted to them...all while under the supervision of a woman having an out of body experience, waiting to die.

Of all the stories in the collection, however, I think "The Changeling" had to be the most disturbing of them all. A son, a father, and a grandfather living in the same house. After an accident, the youngest son seems to be inhabited by a "chorus of voices" that bite at and snap at the father. What is an obvious story about demonic possession becomes a much deeper tug-and-pull until the final scene where the father proves to the demons inside his son exactly how far and how deep the love for his son actually is. I worried that I'd be turned off by this one, having seen or read about other possession/exorcism style stories, but I was hooked until the end. None of the standard cliched nonsense of floating beds or children puking or screaming at the caregivers, just flat out good storytelling with tension being heightened appropriately along the way.

These are just three of the stories that really stood out for me, but the entire collection is phenomenally solid. Had I not been on vacation when I started (and finished) it, there's a very good chance it would have taken me two days, tops, to finish. Adrian's prose style is fluid and truly moves across the page in a very readable, yet vibrant, way. This will be one I recommend to anyone looking for some new reading by someone they may have never heard of.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Books On Deck / Up Next - Pt. IX

Like most people, I headed back home for Thanksgiving. I had been on a hunt for a few books out here in the Bay Area and, for whatever reason, couldn't find them. Strangely enough, I found most of them in Kansas City (which isn't necessarily known for its vast literary collections).

So, I came home with a stack of new books and more on the way. I stumbled across a few that seemed interesting along with the ones that I had searched out and here's what is on my reading list for the last part of the year. I'm certainly not going to hit my goal of reading 100 books this year, but I've read some pretty good ones since January and that may be good enough. Quality over quantity, as they say.

I also just finished Chris Adrian's story collection called "A Better Angel," which was one of the best things I've read all year. Look for a review sometime later this week once I've detoxed and decompressed from the holiday.

Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate.

Optimus Yarnspinner, a young writer, inherits from his beloved godfather an unpublished short story by an unknown author. His search for the author's identity takes him to Bookholm--the so-called City of Dreaming Books. On entering its streets, our hero feels as if he has opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop. His nostrils are assailed by clouds of book dust, the stimulating scent of ancient leather, and the tang of printer's ink.

Soon, though, Yarnspinner falls into the clutches of the city's evil genius, Pfistomel Smyke, who treacherously maroons him in the labyrinthine catacombs underneath the city, where reading books can be genuinely dangerous...

The Golden Age is a fantastical travelogue in which a modern-day Gulliver writes a book about a civilization he once encountered on a tiny island in the Atlantic. The islanders seem at first to do nothing but sit and observe the world, and indeed draw no distinction between reality and representation, so that a mirror image seems as substantial to them as a person (and vice versa); but the center of their culture is revealed to be “The Book,” a handwritten, collective novel filled with feuding royal families, murderous sorcerers, and narrow escapes. Anyone is free to write in “The Book,” adding their own stories, crossing out others, or even ap- pending “footnotes” in the form of little paper pouches full of extra text—but of course there are pouches within pouches, so that the story is impossible to read “in order,” and soon begins to overwhelm the narrator’s orderly treatise.

* Philip K. Dick Award finalist* Locus Recommended Reading Here are 33 weird, wonderful stories concerning men, women, teleportation, wind-up cats, and brown paper bags. By turns whimsical and unsettling—frequently managing to be both—these short fictions describe family relationships, bad breakups, and travel to outer space.    Vukcevich's loopy, fun-house mirror take on everyday life belongs to the same absurdist school of work as that of George Saunders, David Sedaris, Ken Kalfus, and Victor Pelevin, although there is no one quite like him. Try one of these stories, it won't take you long, but it will turn your head inside out.

The Street of Crocodiles in the Polish city of Drogobych is a street of memories and dreams where recollections of Bruno Schulz's uncommon boyhood and of the eerie side of his merchant family's life are evoked in a startling blend of the real and the fantastic. Most memorable - and most chilling - is the portrait of the author's father, a maddened shopkeeper who imports rare birds' eggs to hatch in his attic, who believes tailors' dummies should be treated like people, and whose obsessive fear of cockroaches causes him to resemble one. Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew killed by the Nazis in 1942, is considered by many to have been the leading Polish writer between the two world wars.

Imprisoned for life aboard a zeppelin that floats high above a fantastic metropolis, the greeting-card writer Harold Winslow pens his memoirs. His only companions are the disembodied voice of Miranda Taligent, the only woman he has ever loved, and the cryogenically frozen body of her father Prospero, the genius and industrial magnate who drove her insane.

The tale of Harold’s life is also one of an alternate reality, a lucid waking dream in which the well-heeled have mechanical men for servants, where the realms of fairy tales can be built from scratch, where replicas of deserted islands exist within skyscrapers.. As Harold’s childhood infatuation with Miranda changes over twenty years to love and then to obsession, the visionary inventions of her father also change Harold’s entire world, transforming it from a place of music and miracles to one of machines and noise. And as Harold heads toward a last desperate confrontation with Prospero to save Miranda’s life, he finds himself an unwitting participant in the creation of the greatest invention of them all: the perpetual motion machine.

It is the Afterlife. The end of the world is a distant, distorted memory called “the Age of F***ed Up Shit.” A sentient glacier has wiped out most of North America. Medical care is supplied by open-source nanotechnology, and human nervous systems can be hacked.

Abby Fogg is a film archivist with a niggling feeling that her life is not really her own. She may be right. Al Skinner is a former mercenary for the Boeing Army, who’s been dragging his war baggage behind him for nearly a century. Woo-jin Kan is a virtuoso dishwasher with the Hotel and Restaurant Management Olympics medals to prove it. Over them all hovers a mysterious man named Dirk Bickle, who sends all these characters to a full-scale replica of Manhattan under construction in Puget Sound. An ambitious novel that writes large the hopes and anxieties of our time—climate change, social strife, the depersonalization of the digital age — Blueprints of the Afterlife will establish Ryan Boudinot as an exceptional novelist of great daring.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Philipp Striebe's "45 Seconds" Exhibition

Philip Streibe

For those of you that follow the blog, you’ve probably already picked up on the fact that I like hyping up and promoting the work that friends or friends of friends do in any artistic manner. Whether it’s teaching at the Writing Salon, doing collage work in their spare time, or seeing the world through the eye of a camera lens, I’m all about helping out my fellow artists of any stripe if I can, even if it means simply writing a blog post and pestering the hell out of people with promoting it.

Having said that, my friend Philipp Striebe has a project I’ve been following for awhile through his Facebook posts over the last several months. I’ve seen some of the sample photos and they’re straight up fantastic. I dig the concept as well. I've seen some of his other work and Philipp has got a great eye for imagery. 

In order to cover the costs of curating his show, Philipp has started a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise money to put on the exhibition. You’ll find a link to the Kickstarter page at the bottom of the post. Here’s a little explanation of the project:

“45 seconds...the time it takes a 664 Polaroid to develop at room temperature. These 45 seconds command you to relax and be present. There is no reason to rush and no possibility of expediting the process of shooting the desired photographs. The 'common sense' of shooting portraiture in our shiny and bold digital age of photography is being de-programmed. The usual vast volume of produced images is purposely diminished, but the promised delivery of an instant proof, an image to observe, still remains. This project is the result of my venture into Polaroid portraiture and my vision of photographic aesthetics in capturing people. 
The initial foundation for the Polatrait Series and this project was set in 2005 when I came across a 1937-built Zeiss Icon Nettar Camera at a flea market in my hometown of Bonn, Germany. After this (unknowingly significant) purchase and the first wave of photographic excitement – expressed in exposing the incredible amount of 3 rolls of 120 film - the camera was set aside and forgotten. Life went on and I went strictly digital for the majority of my photography and forgot about this camera.
At some point I bought a Polaroid back for my Hasselblad and started to use Instant pack film, made by FUJI. It was the beginning of what you will witness in the essence of this book. This acquaintance finally initiated the creation of the Pola-Zeiss Camera I used throughout this entire project to photograph my models. 

What transpired next? After using the Hasselblad with the Polaroid proofing-back for a bit, I finally had the idea to merge my old Zeiss-Ikon with this particular film back. The result was the birth of a unique instant camera, paired with original old Polaroid 664 b&w pack-film – the perfect tool to create soulful imagery. The confluence of the flaws and rather soft qualities of the over 75-year-old Ettar-Anastigmat lens / Zeiss-Ikon Telmar shutter birthed a unique portraiture style that captured both the beauty and imperfections of each subject in an organic way. The unpredictable textures and distribution of chemicals in between the Polaroid sheets created photographs that were (and still are) like the purest fix for any addict to this medium.
I decided to use this unique creation exclusively for portraiture. Due to technical facts and fixed parameters - such as an extremely narrow focusing range due to the set back focusing plane and an un-adjusted prism viewfinder - I was working completely outside common expectations. I was able to interact with each participating model on a new, different, and more intimate level. The set would primarily be an authentic reflection of their personality through which they could express themselves organically. The use of a simple white background in combination with b&w film was chosen to highlight the true, unadulterated form of each individual.”

Philipp also sent me an email describing the setup of the exhibition and his reasons for starting the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds:

From December 8, 2012 - January 13, 2013 I have the incredible opportunity to exhibit this work in a solo show at Photobooth, a well-known gallery in San Francisco highlighting the work of artists who do Tynotype and Polaroid portraiture. In order to fully curate this show I've developed a Kickstarter campaign to help raise $2500 to fund this project and help to make this show at Photobooth happen. But here's the catch: I must raise all of the $2500 in only 10 days. If I do not raise the total amount, I'll receive none of the contributions.
To learn about my project and make a contribution, please visit my Kickstarter project page here:
All those who contribute will receive a special Polaroid Portraiture gift in return! Also, my show's Opening Night Party will take place on Saturday, December 8th from 7-10pm at Photobooth in San Francisco. All are welcome!
I reach out to you with tremendous gratitude for any monetary contribution you can offer. Also, the more exposure the better, so please also feel free to forward this to friends and family and/or post to you Facebook, Twitter, etc. pages!
Thank you again!
Philipp Striebe

So, really, you probably want to support this. You should be able to tell through the video on his Kickstarter page that Philipp takes his craft and the viewing of his craft seriously. Show some love, spend some dough, get some fantastic art in the process. Passion begets art, art begets passion...and the whole world keeps spinning 'round because the two work in tandem. Get you some. 


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Soundtrack to "Scaring the Stars into Submission"

I've mentioned before here that I put a playlist together before writing. I try to pick music that evokes certain kinds of emotions or feelings that jive with where I want to see the piece going. Almost all of the short stories in this collection have been written entirely on my phone, which is unusual for me as I typically hate utilizing technology. What I found, however, was that the app I was using (called "A Novel Idea") helped eliminate the issue of too much white space left on the page. When I'm at my laptop, there's an ocean of white that needs to be filled. When I used my phone, I found myself looking at a significantly smaller screen, which in turn helped me focus more intently on the minutiae of the moments I was writing. I honestly feel that many of the stories are deeper and more detailed in ways that my novel is not for this reason.

Since I was writing on my phone, I filled up my music playlist with things I could listen to through my headphones while on public transit or while outside having a cigarette at the end of the day. Here are some of those choices.

"Isle of the Dead" by Rachmaninov

"I Waited For You" by Miles Davis

"Anaklasis" by Penderecki

"Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky

"Krasnagorsky" by Nikakoi

"A Symphony Pathetique" by A Winged Victory for the Sullen

"Danse Macabre" by Saint-Saens


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Ish - Books & Movies Worth Sinking Your Teeth Into

Like every other blogger, I thought about doing a list of my favorite horror movies since the holiday is upon us. Then I realized that I have a very small list of horror movies that I think are even worth watching, much less that are good. Then I thought about making a list of my favorite horror/suspense novels, but I realized that I didn't have a huge list of books that fit into that particular trope either. Maybe the horror/suspense genre just isn't my thing. I don't know that I've come across a lot of books or movies that have really confounded and exceeded expectations or weren't mired in some kind of cliche that we've seen a thousand times before.

For me, the true horror is both a psychological and realistic one. Ghosts and vampires and the supernatural don't really frighten me the way they do for some people. I like a good ghost story, but I'm more terrified of the stories where the events that take place could actually happen to someone. Blood and gore are fine when used right and not to excess, but it's usually the things you don't see or the fracturing of psyches that end up being scarier for me.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - Directed by Michael Bay

I tend to dislike Michael Bay's over-the-top directing, and though I'd never seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the late '70's, I really enjoyed this revamp. Since the original story is loosely based off real events and the original was released almost 40 years ago, it's easy to overlook the "kids travelling in unknown territory/get car troubles/shack up in creepy house/get hacked apart" cliche. Either way, there's not much about this that's supernatural, so it speaks to me on a more visceral level. The fear is the possibility of this happening in real life, even if the killer(s) may be slightly on the ridiculous/near unbelievable side of things.

I Am Legend (2007) - Directed by Francis Lawrence

Most people don't realize that this movie was based on the book of the same name by Richard Matheson. Matheson also wrote several other wonderful pieces that got turned into movies, namely "What Dreams May Come" (a phenomenal screen adaptation starring Robin Williams) and "The Box" (starring Cameron Diaz). Matheson is a solid writer and does some great work on the page that translates easily to the screen. "I Am Legend" has been turned into several different movies over the years: "The Last Man on Earth" (1964), "The Omega Man" (1971), and this current (and I believe, closest adaption of the book) by the same title. The problem is that all three movies (while fun to watch), completely miss the entire point, and really, the title, of the book. I'd rather not spoil the ending of the book, as I believe it's worth it when the reader arrives there, but the movie fell flat in this regard. In true Hollywood fashion, the happy ending precludes the credits and people in the theater leave with a warm feeling. The reader, once done with the novel, finds themselves in a vastly more interesting ethical and moral debate that is infinitely more enjoyable. Had Lawrence actually included the book's ending in the movie, it may have pissed off viewers, but it would have been one of the more interesting movies of that year guaranteed.

"House of Leaves" (2000) - Mark Z. Danielewski

As you can see by the picture above, this book is NOT to be trifled with. This is not your typical horror/suspense novel and it works on about 15 different levels all at the same time. I've reviewed this book on the blog before (part I HERE and part II HERE), but it's really one of those cult classics among readers. If you're looking for a good, truly scary book, pick this one up.

Danielewski was here in San Francisco last week performing his story "The Fifty Year Sword" with live musical accompaniment by Christopher O'Riley. Like "House of Leaves," it was another story inside a story that, when read aloud and with the music alongside it, creeped me right the hell out. I was fortunate enough to have my friend Karen (from over at Conceptual Reception) join me. A huge fan of "House of Leaves" herself, we both enjoyed ourselves immensely and got books signed by the author. A haunted house story is certainly nothing new, but the way Danielewski plays with text and formatting on the page, the way he weaves so many different threads and hidden things within the text, makes this one of the most fascinating and suspense-filled books I've ever read. No hyperbole at all.

"There Is No Year" (2011) - Blake Butler

Blake Butler is one of my favorite new authors in recent years. When I had finished "There Is No Year," I wrote him an email via Facebook simply stating that while I didn't always understand his prose or his plots, I was thoroughly engrossed by the style and color of his prose. The imagery that he evokes is strong, but not always clear. It is almost always dark, but not necessarily oppressive. While this book could've been shorter by a good chunk of pages, the story of this strange nuclear family-gone-surreal is worth reading if only for passages like this one:

"They purred secret sentences in silent rising spiral until the sky at last had drunk so much it sunk to night - the night not out of cycle but in insistence, demanded in the skin, the unseen smoke of body after body sewn surrounding until the mother, at least, could not see—could not feel the air even around her, or her other—could not feel anything at all—and in the dark the mother stuttered—and in the dark again the mother walked."

I would also highly recommend checking out his collection of post-apocalyptic short stories called "Scorch Atlas." Not only are the stories themselves phenomenal, but the formatting of the entire book fits the mood of the writing in ways we don't get to see all that often anymore. Read the actual book; don't do the e-reader thing. This and "House of Leaves" are the kinds of books that are not only becoming more frequent, but are the primary reason the e-readers aren't the final answer to reading. Though I will say this: most readers tend to either love or hate Butler's work. There's not much fence-sitting when it comes to his writing.

"Pedro Paramo" (1955) - Juan Rulfo

Before getting to grad school, I had no idea how prolific and wide-spread the Latin American authors had become within the literary world. What is now sad to me is that most of these phenomenal authors are dead, and have been so for a very long time, thus never seeing how much their works have spread to the more English-speaking countries. Roberto Bolano, Juan Rulfo, Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia on and so forth, all heavy hitters of the strange, surreal, and the fabulist way of writing.

"Pedro Paramo" is one of those fantastic ghost stories that isn't about the frights or scaring you down to your bones. Containing dual narratives of different times, the story is more about making promises to loved ones and standing firm to one's belief systems during great times of duress. This is a short book (only about 128 pages long), but packs a big punch that sits with the reader long after putting it down. This one, I admit, was a surprise to me. I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.

Antichrist (2009) - Directed by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier makes incredibly patience-shredding movies. He is slow, he is deliberate, and at times he can be abstract to the point of not making much sense. However, the final product that he places on the screen is typically gorgeous (see my review of his movie "Melancholia" HERE).

"Antichrist" is one of his darker movies, and that's saying something considering how dark his others are. "Dancer in the Dark," which starred Icelandic pop singer Bjork, was about as depressing and soul-crushing as a movie could be. In this 2009 film, Willem Dafoe and his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, take flight to their cabin home after the accidental death of their son months previous. What follows is Dafoe's attempts to bring Gainsbourg out of her depression, leading to dark hallucinations and a sexual violence I had never seen in film before. While an incredibly heavy movie (and not necessarily considered horror), it's dark enough to make your skin crawl and leave you shaking for days afterwards.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Directed by Robert Wiene

Thankfully, the video posted above is the actual full version of the 1920 classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," so you can watch it in its entirety from here or via Youtube. It's one of the earliest surrealist silent films and utilizes German Expressionism to its fullest. The thing that struck me about this movie upon first viewing was the myriad number of sets that felt more Picasso or Dali-esque in nature (though the movie's style pre-dated both of the painters' more cubist and surrealist techniques respectively). Each set was distinctive and highlighted a jagged, nightmarish quality that remained throughout the hunt for a serial killer.

Another bit of patience is needed for the silent film; we've become so used to the need for soundtracks and speaking roles that the silent film has almost become a relic many have forgotten about. I could rattle off a host of famous movies that utilize the same kind of surprise ending, but then I'd basically be ruining this one for those you of you that haven't seen it. While the ending would be considered cliche these days, in 1920, it was considered to be the first example of the "twist ending." And please don't look it up on Wikipedia. You'll really do yourself a disservice by not watching the movie in its entirety. This is a quick and easy classic that takes less than an hour to watch and has recently been remade with speaking parts. I found both versions to be entertaining.

Fear(s) of the Dark (Peur(s) du Noir) (2007) - Directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire

It appears that this movie, a collection of dark and twisted animated tales, can also be viewed in its entirety on Youtube, much to my happy surprise. I had never heard of any of these comic/graphic artists before, but watching these digital shorts was a bit like finding myself inside the lore and legend of some of my favorite magical realists. While there were elements of American horror throughout, I also felt a wonderful and vibrant foreign feel to many of the stories, themselves spliced and separated by the strange cartoon of a man walking several violent dogs throughout a city; each splice finds another stranger killed by one of these dogs.

The entire movie is done in black and white. I can't say that this is the wrong way to do it, but in some shorts, a little color/clarity would've gone a long way. My favorite happened to be the final one where a stranger caught out in a blizzard finds himself struggling to keep his sanity in an abandoned house full of photo albums with the faces cut out of all the pictures. The stories here were incredibly interesting and more than a couple had me genuinely afraid of what might have come next.

"Outer Dark" (1968) - Cormac McCarthy

For those familiar with McCarthy's work, this choice will seem pretty bizarre for this list. McCarthy, however, is one of those fabulous maximalist writers that does the best kind of justice to, not only the landscapes surrounding his characters, but the backgrounds of the characters he writes about. If he's not writing about a kind of cowboy/desert story, he's delving into the underbelly of the Appalachian Mountain area, reaching in deep to find the darkest corner he can find. "Outer Dark" disturbed me to no end. Being Cormac's second novel, it's hard to believe that this one was even published at the time, much less that it led to several other novels that drowned in incredibly dark subject matter.

The novel starts off with a woman having her brother's baby. The baby arrives and the woman falls asleep. The brother heads off into the woods and buries the screaming baby, still alive, where it is found later by a traveling tinker. The novels splits off into two separate story lines: that of the brother and that of the sister. The brother leaves his sister after she finds out about his deception, but can't seem to shake the shroud of suspicion regardless of whatever town he ends up in while looking for work. He becomes an inherently distrusted person despite having done nothing beyond trying to rid himself of the child. His story becomes tragic in a traditional Grecian way.

I place this one last purely due to the nature of McCarthy's body of work. There aren't a lot of living authors left that have such a grasp of language (or create their own, in some instances) and still retain the talent of painting such desolate situations and landscapes so beautifully. There's no supernatural terror or bloody gore making the cogs of this story revolve, but it is nonetheless an intensely disturbing novel that will tug at the reader long after the book has been shut.


Friday, September 28, 2012

(Review) Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis"

I picked this one up finally because I saw that it was being turned into a movie (starring 'Twilight' actor Robert Pattinson) and I always prefer to read the books before the movies. I'm hoping to dig into "Cloud Atlas" next before it comes out.

Don DeLillo has been pretty hit or miss with me for awhile, but I tend to like his style more than his substance. The first book I read by him was "Point Omega," which I thoroughly enjoyed and, subsequently, picked up more of his books thereafter. "Mao II" (which I reviewed HERE) started off well enough, but seemed to spiral out into a kind of far-fetched idealism about the power of the written word. I tried to read "Libra," a multi-voiced novel about the assassination of JFK, but got 200 pages in when I realized I honestly had no idea what the book was about and was bored to tears. It meandered terribly.

Regardless, I still have more DeLillo to read. Not because I think he deserves a chance to win my full readership back (though he does), but because of lines like this found in "Cosmopolis":

"It would be a breach of trust, he thought, to ask if she had a cat, much less a husband, a lover, life insurance. What are your plans for the weekend? The questions would be a form of assault. She would turn away, angry and humiliated. She was a voice with a body as afterthought, a wry smile that sailed through heavy traffic. Give her a history and she'd disappear."

This is a wonderfully apt internalization of the main character, Eric Packer, in regards to one of his business underlings. Eric Packer is himself a kind of ubermensch, the guy money men listen to when he speaks. His net worth is unmentioned by specific number, but he is one of the few who ride around in stretch limos in what can only be described as a near post-apocalyptic economic crash. The population is destitute, the streets are overcrowded with anarchists and protestors, a large funeral procession for a global rap star, and the President's motorcade. Packer lives in a highrise apartment that cost him $141 million dollars while his limo is decked out in the latest technology; no-touch screens, a hidden bathroom, opera lighting between the windows, a full bar, and a wealth of seating for anyone that rides with him.

He is married to Elise Shifrin, a poet who is also immensely rich (due to family inheritance rather than business acumen). They've been married a month and still she refuses to to have sex with him. Packer's hyper-ego allows him to have sex with other women who aren't his wife along his travel through the city to get a haircut (the stated main objective of the book), but still his desire for Elise is tangible. She is the one thing in the world he cannot control, cannot simply take and make his own regardless of their relationship status. She remains unattainable, which draws him in further.

And this seems to be the main thrust of the book; Packer gets what he wants not because he takes it, but because he has the intellect to do so. His mastery of the ebb and flow of the stock market has made him unimaginably rich and yet the story revolves around his complete, abject failure of predicting the yen market. He leverages all his money against it, finds a way to move all of Elise's fortune to his own in order to leverage more against it (making her destitute in the process), and finds out that he is being hunted by an ex-employee (the reason for all his bodyguards).

The book takes place over the course of a single day and by the time we get to the final scene where Packer comes face to face with his "assassin" (who has little journal-like entries scattered throughout the book), the result is, like many of DeLillo's other endings, flat and without much in the way of any real kind of resolution. I don't mind open-ended final scenes; I think they can bring about really interesting discussions between readers of the same book with different interpretations. Though with the last few books I've read, this seems to be DeLillo's modus operandi and it can frustrating when it feels like it's all the time.

Throughout the entire book, the idea becomes increasingly more clear - Eric Packer is something of a sadist, both sexually and personally, but the crumbling of the entire world around him leaves him speculating on his own idea of passion, particularly that he doesn't have any. He treats underlings like peons, he treats the women in his life like objects to be thrust inside, and he feels that it is only through losing all of his money intentionally that he will actually feel alive. There's some truth to this kind of emotional transformation in a book, but it's hard to say when this kind of realization occurs since the story takes place over the course of a day.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book, and I'll continue to read more of DeLillo's work until I latch onto another piece that rivals the feelings I had coming away from "Point Omega." I can see Pattinson playing the role of Packer easily, but I'm always curious to see the directorial bent that emerges between the translation from page to screen.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

(Review) Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris"

We've all been asked at one point or another if there's an era we'd have rather visited, rather existed within...and I can't recall a single answer where someone said "the current one." I'm sure there are people out there who relish in the technocratic ways of the new millennium, but I'm certainly not one of them. I don't think the vast majority of people are, if we were to poll them. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of history - we already know the outcome, we already know the significance of the people and things that occurred. They've since been exalted into the public mythos and somehow elevated into the lexicon of the now.

But this is the kind of question Allen poses to his main character Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson). Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter unhappy with the work that has made him successful. He has completed a novel that he won't let anyone read (not even his fiancee Inez, played by Rachel McAdams). The couple are in Paris supporting the expansion of Inez's father's company. Neither of her parents like Gil and Gil isn't especially taken by either of them, but the tension is pretty old hat for the traditional dynamic between potential son-in-laws and parents.

Gil wants to move to Paris after the wedding, but Inez wants to move to Malibu. Gil wants to walk through the rainy Paris streets, Inez hates the rain and prefers driving. Gil wants to enjoy the night air of Paris, Inez wants to go clubbing with an old (annoyingly know-it-all and pedantic) friend and his wife. The dissimilarities between the couple become more and more obvious (and increasingly uninteresting) the longer the movie plays out, but also lead Gil to question whether Inez is the right woman for him.

There is also the matter of Gil time-travelling back to Paris in the 1920's. And meeting a slew of passionate, creative, genius-level behemoths in the world of the arts: Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his wife Zelda), Hemingway, Man Ray, Dali (played by Adrian Brody), Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Gertrude Stein (a gregarious Kathy Bates), Luis Bunuel, T.S. Eliot, Matisse, Gauguin, and Degas.

Needless to say, Gil is floored. Not only has he been given the strange and opportunistic chance to visit his desired era, he's meeting some of the generation's most notable, most notorious denizens who have changed the face of the respective arts that they practice. He also wonders if he's fallen in love with Picasso's mistress, Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard) who also wishes she had been born in a different era. Different paths leading to different pasts are apparently littered across the streets of Paris...but only after the clock strikes midnight.

This was the first Woody Allen movie I've ever seen, but I enjoyed it. This could have easily been a two and a half hour movie with a little more in-depth and subversive discussion of the main themes. The whimsy and magical nature of someone inexplicably being pulled into a completely different era is never explained, but it didn't have to be. Paris itself has been described by generations of people as being a magical place (itself a mythos in our historical lexicon), but we tend to know what Gil will end up doing about his life, his novel, and his fiancee by the end of the film. This was a completely enjoyable film and some of the best parts for me personally were Hemingway's quotes delivered with deep gusto and machismo by Corey Stoll.