Saturday, May 21, 2011

Les Miz

It is rare for me to encounter a novel that works out better as a Broadway musical than it does as a novel. I'm the sort of difficult individual who will *not* see the movie made out of the book until I have read the book first. This is because I hold the book as a superior interpretation of whatever the author had to express. When one sees the movie made from the book one sees the director's (and script-writer's) interpretation of the author's work--so it's a few degrees of separation from the original. I admit this is a bit pig-headed of me and it has made people mad at me but really--if the book was that good shouldn't I just read it--instead of seeing the movie first?

This doesn't mean I won't see the movie, or the play or the musical--it just means I want to read the book first. With Les Misérables, I really had no opportunity to read the book before I encountered the musical. It opened on Broadway in the 80s--when I was way too young to be reading books that were 2.5 inches thick. My voice teacher in junior high had taught me to sing "Castle on a Cloud*" even before my parents bought the soundtrack (I preferred my voice teacher's suggested cadence to the Broadway version.) I was studying French in middle school, so I was intrigued by the idea of a French musical, and all of New York was crazy about Les Miz. But I didn't see the show until I'd at least taken a stab at reading the book (in English). I failed to work my way through the book at my first attempt at age 14. Of course, at that time I had not yet learned to love big, thick novels and 19th century novels in particular.

I saw the musical some time when I was in high school. We got student tickets and ended up in the second row. I loved every minute of it.

As I've mentioned above, I love 19th century literature and thick novels. I love Dickens and Tolstoy and I also love a lot of what Victor Hugo wrote (I read a bunch of of it--starting with "Notre Dame de Paris" aka "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") while living in Paris, but I found "Les Misérables" to be impenetrable. It was the only book I left in Paris. I see that there's a story to be told-but M. Hugo fails to make it interesting--which is why it's the only novel I've read that actually makes a better musical than a novel.

Part of the reason that the book is so hard to read, in my opinion is because the author intentionally leaves Les Miz-the miserable ones--characterless-so it's hard to sympathize with them. Furthermore, this is a miserabilist novel--designed to show the unhappiness of others. That makes it less-than-fun-to read.

I got into an argument about the book with the former proprietor of Ave Victor Hugo books in Boston (lots of used French books.) The proprietor was into 19th century authors and when I said that I liked Victor Hugo but *not* "Les Misérables" he just got a superior look on his face and said that I just wasn't ready to understand the book yet. It's been 10 years since we had this conversation, and I think I can safely say he was full of shit. I like the concepts that Victor Hugo wanted to present to the world-but he didn't do a good job of presenting them. He did such a bad job, that we must be grateful to the Broadway stage for doing a better job of presenting his ideas than he did himself.

*I also made her teach me "I Dreamed a Dream." She didn't want to--"No sweetie-you are too young for that one"--but when I sang it for her she admitted I had a point--it worked out because I was so young.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bonk by Mary Roach

It’s been a while since I reviewed a book so, dear readers, I would like to recommend to you _Bonk_, by Mary Roach. This book is subtitled “The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Roach’s first book; _Stiff_; which was an exploration of what happens to cadavers in America. Her second book _Spook_ (which was about evidence-or lack there of-of life after death) was rather “meh.” However, since second books often suck, when I found _Bonk_ in the remainder section of the Harvard Bookstore I thought it might be worth purchasing. I have to say that was definitely $6.99 well spent.

Ms. Roach is a journalist. Her non-fiction books read as if each chapter was an article she had to write. She has chosen for her books the sort of subjects that inspire, um, morbid curiosity. Somehow she manages to admit this and be snarky about it while still being respectful to (in the case of _Bonk_) the human subjects who volunteer to do sex research and the scientists who do such research and (in the case of _Stiff_) the cadavers she views. Because _Bonk_ is a look into the history of scientific studies of sex I feel that if I just say it was a fun read you, dear reader, will just roll your eyes and say “duh.”

Well, yes, duh, books about science and sex can be fun, but the reason I feel the need to write this one up and share my impression with the world is because this morning the chapter I was reading on the commuter whale made me laugh out loud. I feel a bit bad for the guy who got on at Salem and had to sit next to me (in an older car—the ones with the smaller, blue seats that aren’t really big enough for two people) while I laughed as quietly as I could between Salem and about Chelsea. Unlike most commuter whale-riders he was unequipped with an ipod, a kindle, an ipad, a laptop or even a book. All he had was a folder with some notes in it and he got to sit next to me, reading and shaking with tears coming out of my eyes. Poor man.

The chapter that made me laugh so much was about suction devices designed to help with sexual dysfunction. Apparently, not only are there suction devices to help men get their thing up, but there is also one suction device designed for women (it sucks blood into the clitoris.) The chapter in question was about this suction device for women however the Eros* wasn’t what made me almost fall out of my chair. What made me laugh was the case of a man who had died while beating off with his vacuum cleaner. I’m not sure whether it was that he had suffered “burns on the area in contact with the beater bar” (Bonk, page 208) or the fact that his wife had previously caught him masturbating with the vacuum cleaner, or that when he was found dead he had “one arm encircling the canister in the manner of a lover’s embrace.” (Also Bonk, 208)

Why did these things make me laugh instead of making me squirm? Well let’s start with this one “Dear Future Soul Mate-whoever you may be-I realize that “You can’t love another without loving yourself (Shakespeare) or to put it another way, even in a committed relationship it’s okay for a human to spend “quality time” with himself, however if I catch you putting the moves on my vacuum cleaner we are going to have a serious talk.”

I admit I found the cherry-picked history of scientifically studied sex interesting (with a big eye-roll for Freud) but what really amused me was that there was a man who thought it was good fun to put his dick in contact with the beater bar of the vacuum cleaner-even after his wife caught him at it. Now maybe she suggested that this was not wise and he ignored her. He died of a heart attack while being sucked-off by the vacuum cleaner. And I found this so funny that not only did I laugh out loud on public transportation, but I also stayed up late to write about it on the inter-webs.

*The device that sucks blood into the clitoris. Available for $400 by NuGyn

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Le Corps d'un Ennemi Mort Sent Toujors Bon*"

I've been out of the world attending a company retreat for the two days. Yesterday, as the conversation at the breakfast table was flagging, I pulled out my phone to "read the paper" (i.e. look at and's apps.) "Osama bin Laden has been killed by US forces?" I said aloud. "Oh yeah. Didn't you know that?"asked the guy next to me.

I found the whole thing not only shocking but odd. The lead story was about Osama bin Laden's death. The next story on was his obituary. Huh? Do we normally print obits for people we hunt down and kill?

Before I continue musing and navel-gazing let me say this--Osama bin Laden got what was coming to him. He claimed responsibility for terrorist acts against the United States. Either he was involved with the acts with the acts (the bombing of the USS Cole and the 9.11 attack on the World Trade Center, for example) and took responsibility for them, knowing that this would make him a legitimate military target or he was not involved and took credit which still makes him a legitimate target. In the latter case he was a fool. In the former case he knew what he was getting into.

Also, he blew a giant hole in my hometown and in doing so, changed the world--and not for the better. He opened a door, and through it strode fear and jingoism. We haven't recovered from the effects of 9.11.01 and I don't feel like the death of Osama bin Laden makes things any better. I don't mean to be whiny about this, but as we're all sick of hearing "September 11th changed everything." We've changed the way we think and the way we behave. We don't like taking our shoes off or being X-rayed (or patted-down) to fly, but we put up with it. We don't like discovering that that there is warrentles wire-tapping, but we put up with it. I personally don't like the idea that someone may be tracking my Google searches, my phone calls, my personal e-mail, my text messages or my facebook account, but I put up with it.**

The death of Osama bin Laden doesn't change any of that.

I am a little put off by the rejoicing at his death, I must admit. Although I've been out of the world, I've had brief moments to look at facebook. I've seen ambivalence, jokes in bad taste (which are still funny--if we cannot laugh about something we are no longer human) and blood-thirsty GO TEAM USA comments. The last comments bother me a bit. I would have preferred that they brought Osama bin Laden to trial, but I recognize that this was not a likely outcome. It could have been politically embarrassing in many ways. But, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, even if one hoped that bin Laden would be captured and tried, if he put up resistance was killed in the process, no one can argue that he was simply assassinated. And, as I mentioned above, even if he was simply "taken out" he was kind of asking for it, so it shouldn't have come as a shock to him. This is not a case of some 18 year old kid pulled off the streets of LA because he had family in Afghanistan and took it into his head to go home in the Spring of 2002 and got hauled off to Gitmo for it. As I said before, he got what what was coming to him.

I am not sad for him. I am not even particularly sad for his family--they must have known what he was doing and what the consequences might be. I am sad for us--the rest of the world who wonder if our e-mail is being examined, or are harassed at the airport because we're carrying breast milk in a container, or have our bags checked at Back Bay T station, by TSA employees. I am sad that people--including our president--are pointing the death of one bad man out as one of the greatest American accomplishments--personally I'd prefer the telephone or even the atomic bomb--any medieval lord/lady given enough time can track down an enemy and kill him/her. But it takes more than that to develop a computer, a telephone, the Internet etc. These are the kind of things that make me want to shout"Go USA!" not the finding and killing of an enemy.

In Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim, the narrator says about John Wilkes Booth "Damn you Johnny you paved the way for other madmen to have their day.."That's kind of how I feel about bin Laden. He was a bad man--he was an asshole. He got what was coming to him, but the rest of us are still dealing with the after-effects of his actions.

*The dead body of an enemy always smells good. A Dumas, La Reine Margot
**There's no reason why anyone might be tracking any of these things. I'm a thoroughly boring individual as far as National Security is concerned--I don't even belong to a book group, but I feel that if anyone wanted to put me or anyone else under surveillance it would be easy to do so now.