Sunday, April 26, 2015

So Big

I first became aware of this book through various Looney Toon cartoons where it would figure as some kind of corny sight gag. It made me wonder what a book called "So Big" could be about. Then, a couple years ago, I listened to this TMBG song, which made me wonder why I didn't know anything about Edna Ferber. Then I realized she wrote Show Boat, which has always been one of my favorite musicals / movies, due to my fascination with Captain Andy. And then I found a cool six volume collection of her novels printed in the 1920's in excellent condition at Half Price Books. I think it was mis-marked... I think they were supposed to be $20 each, and instead, the whole set seemed to be marked $20. The clerk seemed to agree that this was an error, but there was no way to be sure, so she just let me have it. And the first novel in the set of six (they are ordered chronologically) is So Big.

I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly did enjoy it. It is a tale of a woman who moves from the city to become a farm wife, and "So Big" is the nickname she gives to her little boy. I am learning that children raised in difficult circumstances is a bit of a hallmark for Edna Ferber. So Big is very much about a woman trying to make it in a man's world, in this case, the man's world of running a farm, and selling what you grow in order to survive. The city to country motif has something in common with Main Street, but So Big is much more hopeful. It manages to combine the worlds of farming and art together, showing that they aren't as different as one might think.

What really won me over was chapter eight, which gets into the gory details of what it was really like to cart your crops to the big city, and fight for a space to sell them. From these details, it rises to something perfect, beautiful and unexpected. I would transcribe it, but to just see the words without experiencing the entire trajectory, well, it will just seem corny. In any case, that chapter won me over to Edna Ferber. She is excellent at bringing an intellectual and philosophical point of view to the most mundane activities -- and, of course, getting a window into the realities of nineteenth century life is always interesting to me. It's very easy for me to understand how this book managed to become a household name, and I'm glad that, for me, it has become more than a cartoon punchline.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


I know I'm late writing about this, but I thought I would finally get around to it. It's fascinating that this movie is as popular as it is. I'm not sure I understand why, exactly. The fantasy of ice magic is fun, and there are a lot of exciting and funny moments, and then on top of that it has a very interesting message. It doesn't exactly follow the mold of a normal fairy tale, but then again, it does. What I find most interesting is that everyone I talk to seems to have a different way of expressing what the movie is really about. So, here's my take on the theme of the film: We all have terrible things inside us. Repressing them is ultimately impossible. Letting them out, especially after they are bottled up, leads to disaster. However, tempering them with love can be peaceful, beautiful, and powerful. An unusual message for a fairy tale! That's my interpretation, anyway. It's a sign of a powerful story that many people find many different meanings in it. Oh, and Josh Gad was really funny, and Kristen Bell's performance was excellent and overlooked.

Friday, April 24, 2015


A new TMBG album is always cause for celebration! And this one is really solid and fun. My three favorite tracks, I think, are Erase, Answer, and Aaa. For reasons I can't explain, I'm excited for the vinyl version to come out. Leading up to the release, they were emailing out links to the songs every couple days. I thought it would spoil things, but I think it really built up an appetite for the album. The future is weird and complicated. But it has lots of good music, nonetheless.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Every aspect of everything in my life is about magic. The study, exploration, and application of magic is the primary driver for everything I do. So this book caught my interest. I didn't expect much, I was thinking it would be something like a dark Harry Potter for grown ups, but this was something different. And what makes it different is its unusual approach to the nature of magic. In the story, practical magic has been largely forgotten, replaced with an ivory tower study of the theory of magic. Much of the story is about the exploration of this difference, which to me felt charged with a sort of symbolism. The most vivid parts of this fascinating book involve the descriptions of how magic actually takes place. The part that makes no sense is that it would seem that just about anyone in the story world with an inclination would be able to do some very useful magic... but as it goes, in stories, that just doesn't happen. The dark world of the faeries, and the dark side of using magic are what really keep the story going, and make it truly interesting. I really enjoyed this long book, from beginning to end. A filmed version is in production -- it is hard for me to imagine it will be captured properly, but you never know... sometimes, magic can surprise you.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Banshee Chapter

I got to see this film in McConomy Auditorium at CMU as part of Spring Carnival, and afterwards I had the privilege of hosting a Q&A session with the director (Blair Erickson) and producer (Corey Moosa). It's a fun horror movie with a lot of jump-scare moments, very much inspired by the 1986 horror film From Beyond which is based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. I like any movie that mentions the pineal gland, and I'm always fascinated by films of Lovecraft stories. The film brings the pineal gland up to date by having it activated not by a electronic tuning fork, but rather by a variant on the psychotropic drug DMT. Interestingly, this film will have a place in history, as it is one of the first films converted to VR. It is available on Mac for the Oculus Rift. I haven't tried that, but I understand that the scary moments are very scary, but the handheld camera scenes can be a little hard to take, "motion discomfort"-wise. Talking to Blair and his team, they are pursuing the dream of VR movies -- I was quite pleased to learn that they had taken Building Virtual Worlds with Randy Pausch back in its early days -- they were surprised to learn that I teach it now! It will be quite interesting to see what they come up with next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


I've always liked Carl Reiner. Who doesn't? I got to know him as Alan Brady, and learning that he was the real writer of the Dick Van Dyke show, in other words, the real Dick Van Dyke, playing his own boss, well, always made him kind of a surreal and awesome figure. And, well, the 2000 year old man. And the way he and Mel Brooks hang out every day.  And he broke me up on TV once when I was a kid, on the Dinah Shore show, or something like it, with his impersonation of the radio singer who couldn't make it on TV because of the weird faces he made when he sang. And he's Rob Reiner's dad! Anyway, I was intrigued to find this peculiarly titled novel read by the author. Turns out, well, I can't say it's a great novel. It's kind of goofy and stupid, really, and didn't enjoy a lot of editing. It centers around a novelist who talks to himself, who is writing a new telling of Genesis. In the interview at the end, Reiner admits he started trying to write Genesis himself, found it was hard, and instead started writing this story around that. He also admits he didn't plot it much, he mostly let the novel unfold, and that kind of shows, too, as some storylines just kind of go dead. The strongest parts for me were the internal (or, not so internal) monologues of the protagonist, but at the story resolves itself, those gradually disappear.

But judging this as a novel is probably wrong. Better to judge it as a visit from a friend. Having Carl Reiner come by and read this silly story aloud was tremendous fun, and it made me feel closer to him, like I know him a little better. He's 93 now, and wrote this when he was 84. I hope I can be creating such silly, fun things when I'm 84!

Monday, April 13, 2015

All The Names

I got to see this remarkable production by Pittsburgh's Quantum Theater. Based on the book by Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago (it is one of my goals to read a book by every Nobel literature winner -- I guess this counts for half credit), this play takes place in several rooms of the "Original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny", also known as the abandoned, decrepit half of the Hazlett Theater that was a police station for a little while. However, an ancient library that still has scars of being hastily converted into a police station which was then abandoned makes a perfect setting for this fascinating, Kafkaesque story. (spoilers ahead.) It is a story about a clerk in a dehumanizing institution who becomes obsessed with the identity of a person whose file card he pulls from a file by mistake. We follow him about his covert investigations, while we literally follow him through this weird old building. The performances were excellent, and fascinating -- there are a number of scenes where one character is played by two actors simultaneously, to captivating effect. There is some good use of projection to enhance performance, though honestly, I would have liked to see either more, or less of that. Every single one of the actors was fascinating in their own way, and that, plus an unusual and surreal Borges/Kafka story, plus a lot of interesting theatrical gimmicks was more than enough to keep me interested. I'd quite like to see it again, if I can. My favorite part about these performances designed around a space is their ephemeral nature -- so, if you are interested, see it while you can. I know I'm interested enough to read the book. Also -- it has Mark Conway Thompson, who used to be in Mummenschanz. Also also, live sheep. What more do you need? Stefon would love it.