Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Development

John Barth

Fresh out of college, with my shiny new BA in English in hand, I discovered John Barth. His early books, The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, and particularly The Sot Weed Factor and Giles Goat Boy, were wondrous to me, and fresh, pushing the cutting edge of 20th century literature.

His middle works began to seem formulaic, or I had learned the extent of Barth's bag of literary tricks. I knew that he would move his characters in and out of time, put them in the middle of ancient folk tales, bring them back to the Chesapeake, just because he could. They still held my interest, particularly as I had migrated to the scene of his writing. I was sailing the same wine dark sea -er- Bay, as Simon Behler, in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and Peter Sagamore of Tidewater Tales. I was eating the same steamed crabs, drinking the same National Bohemian beer and watching the same sunsets.

Barth's later books became one trick ponies, the point of which seemed to be to remind the reader that Barth is the Author and he can do whatever he wants with his books, which brings us to this latest short work of fiction. It's not a novel. It's not a collection of short stories. It doesn't have a plot structure, the way I learned in school that stories are supposed to. It starts and stops at will, changes direction, changes narrative point of view ambiguously, stops in the middle of a chapter and refuses to finish it. This would be self indulgent in a younger author. For Barth in 2008, when The Development was published, it just seems exhausted.

The characters in The Development are pencil sketches at best. Residents of a fictional gated community "Heron Bay Estates," they do remind me of the denizens of Heron Point, a gateless retirement community, located at the edge of town. Barth does not give any of them the time to develop. He does kill several of them off and, in one case, Barth simply refuses to continue writing about a couple, prematurely ending the chapter without reaching any point whatsoever - the omnipotent Author rearing his ugly head.

He makes several changes of narrative point of view, which is OK, but at one point he interrupts the narrative to ask the reader to guess who is writing now. No, I know yo aren't Dean Potter Simpsonof Stratford College, or George Newett, who you tried out as a narrator earlier, or Carol Walsh or Amanda Todd or . . . It's old John Barth down there on Broad Neck, pecking away at his old typewriter or his new Mackintosh. Give me a break, John.

What held my interest, again, was the local connection. Barth changed the name of our little town, calling it Stratford, dubbed our little liberal arts college, Stratford College, gave it a,similar overly large and cursed, Shakespeare prize in literature to replace the one named after Sophie Kerr, and re-named our county after an inflatable dinghy. I kept hoping to recognize some of the people in town, however he seems to have made all of his characters up out of whole cloth and not just changed the names to protect the innocent. Or perhaps he runs in different circles than I. We never meet at dinner parties, although I sometimes spot him on the street or at the supermarket.

All in all, I would have to say that The Development would probably be a crashing bore to anyone not familiar with Chestertown and it's environs. To me it was like reading my own name in the Kent County News.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Street Gang

The Complete History of Sesame Street
Michael Davis

Where did Kermit the Frog come from and why did Jim Henson carry a purse? At least one of these questions is answered in Michael Davis' new book Street Gang, as he gives a blow by blow account of the growth and development of this children's television icon. I took this book out hoping that I would find a reference in it to a drama teacher that I had in college who was also a puppeteer and had reputedly worked with Henson. No, he wasn't mentioned. The guy only lasted a year, so maybe his story wasn't completely legit, I dunno.

Davis concentrates on the Sesame Street cast and crew, of course, but does mention some of the other projects of Children's Television Workshop and Jim Henson Productions The Electric Company, Fraggle Rock, and my favorite, The Muppet Show. A couple programs Square One TV and 3-2-1 Contact, I had never heard of. It was interesting to hear the back story on many of the actors and puppeteers that made Sesame Street and of it's real creator, CTW's first CEO and Sesame Street producer, Joan Ganz Cooney.

There is also discussion Sesame Street's nemesis, the dreaded Barney, evil champion of saccharine programming for preschoolers and the inspiration, through eroding ratings, for such successful characters as Prairie Dawn, Zoe and, gasp, Elmo. I can take everything but Elmo, which, naturally, has become the shining star of Sesame Street. Two and three year-olds actually do like saccharine, as I observed with my own purple dinosaur watching children back in the early nineties.

This review was brought to you by the letter Q and the numbers 5 and 9.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Last Witchfinder

James Morrow

This is my second attempt at a book by James Morrow. I reviewed his newest The Philosopher's Apprentice just a couple of weeks ago. I may become a tiresome bore, writing review after review of Morrow's books, nine so far, although he seems to take a long time working on each one, so my binge can't go on too long. The Last Witchfinder was a seven year long project for him.

The Last Witchfinder is a kind of historical fantasy, set in late 17th and early 18th century England and America and involving figures such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Montesquieu in the adventures of a fictional character, Jennet Stearne, a woman who has been given the task, by her aunt, a natural philosopher accused of witchcraft, of disproving the existence of demons, witchcraft and magic. Superficially, the book reminded me of John Barth's The Sot Weed Factor, because of the place and time, the elements of a voyage to the new world and the adventures of an unlikely cast of characters, moving through a semi-realistic and somewhat absurd 17th century world.

The central theme of the book, set in a time of transition, like our own, is the conflict between the rising of the coming age of reason with the irrational medieval superstition still prevalent during the renaissance. The Salem witch trials figure highly in the book. It becomes somewhat gruesome in it's depiction of the torture and execution of supposed witches. Parallels with current conflicts between reason and irrationality can be drawn, yet the novel treads on that ground very lightly, never becoming didactic.

There is an element of magical realism to the book, even as it tries to show the superiority of reason over superstition. The book's narrator, and purported author is Isaak Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. There are interludes throughout the book in which Newton's magnum opus addresses the reader directly and discusses the lives, loves and literary accomplishments of other books and sometimes plays. You may be surprised to hear that Waiting for Godot is responsible for writing Microsoft's application documentation - or maybe not.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Life Sentences

Laura Lippman

If you look through this blog you might deduce that I have become a Laura Lippman fan. I've enjoyed tracking down her early work and filling in the history of her detective character, Tess Monaghan and reading her occasional forays into other branches of fiction.

Life Sentences
is her newest book and now I am all caught up and will have to wait for her to finish the tedious process of writing another book before I can gobble it up in a weekend.

This is not a Tess Monaghan story. Lippman has created a new central character, Cassandra Fallows, a writer, successful with her first two books, both memoirs, who has tried writing fiction for her third book and met with severe criticism from the critics. She has returned to Baltimore for a visit, making a few stops on her book tour and checking in on her aging parents. She runs across a decades old crime story which, mirable dictu, involves one of her elementary school classmates and decides that her next book will be about this person, her school days and her old friends.

Life Sentences deviates from the crime novel pattern just a bit. Cassandra wants to answer some of the unanswered questions about the mysterious disappearance of her schoolmate's child, as related in a short TV news piece she caught on a local Baltimore station, watching in her hotel room, but nobody ever gets arrested. There are no murders, no criminals are brought to justice. Eventually, no book is written about it. Cassandra Fallows is welcomed back to her home town when she declines to profit from it's dark secret.

Lippman has always made Baltimore the core of her writing. I am not from the city, I live on the Eastern Shore and mostly see Baltimore on the local TV news, yet I find her use of the city and it's environs to be one of the most attractive parts of her writing. In this case the Eastern Shore plays a larger than usual role. I've been to Bridegville Delaware, know Denton fairly well and have traveled the back roads of Kent Island, all of which are ground covered by the characters in Life Sentences.

Being a writer, doing a book tour, getting panned by the critics and mining your home town, your friends and family for material are what this book is about - keeping in mind that this is fiction. The title is a reference to the central character's Sisyphean task of writing endlessly about her past. Perhaps Lippman is feeling a bit Sisyphean herself after writing fifteen books set in her lifelong home.