Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Olson's Penny Arcade by Elder Olson

I'm afraid I can't find an image of this book to save my life, which is a shame because that's what attracted me to it in a random library grab. The cover depicts what I believe is supposed to be an old penny movie viewer, where you turn a crank and the photos inside move rather like a flip book.

You don't have to turn a crank to get the poetry inside started, fortunately. All you have to do is turn the page. Inside, you'll find a set of four sections, two that offer a variety of poems, one with a set of themed poems, and another that is a short play in verse.

Mr. Olson says that, "If these poems range from jocosity yo fury and near suicidal despair, that is because they reflect the kind of person I happen to be and the kind of world we happen to live in." I think that's a pretty accurate accounting of the contents, even allowing for the bias of the author. You can't find a particular style in this poems--there's no reliance on nature as theme, or strong use of personal circumstances, or anything that you might expect to find as a signature style.

Instead, what we get, at least in my opinion, is just a clever collection of words to tell a short story or message. Olson doesn't try to make a square peg fit a round hole. He'll write in rhymed verse if that makes sense, but he's not wedded to its use (or its absence). In other cases, there will be structure within a free verse setting. It's a refreshing variety that worked quite well for me.

If you must find a common idea in this collection, I guess it is the idea that the human race has kinda screwed up. It has its moments, but all in all, we seem more likely to do the wrong thing. Olson is a bit of a pessimist, but it doesn't make him write the poetry of the depressed. Instead, he channels his ironic look at life into well-structured form.

Take this poem, "Abdication of the Clown":

"Here, take the old suit
Of spots and rugles,
I've only been wearing it
As pajamas
And somehow lately
I just can't sleep.

Take the hat, too.
It's really only
A duked-up dunce-cap
But it's part of the uniform.
And here's the mask:
Take it, you need it

To give you character.
Go on, get in there
And do what they tell you
And hurry, hurry:
The stands are empty,
Everyone else
Is clowning already.

Don't worry about me.
I'll sit here
Dressed in my skin,
Disguised as myself
And from here on in
I'm only a spectator
Who can't bear to look."

These are the words of a man approaching seventy, who was a child for the first world war, an adult for the second, and a (likely) frustrated older man for Vietnam. He's done with playing the fool, but knows that someone else must take up the mantle. This is a very sad poem, but it's by no means maudlin. You can easily see that Olson is cynical about life, but it doesn't make him express his feelings in a way that reads like whining about it.

There is a similar vibe in other poems, as Olson appears to be reflecting on all kinds of things here in his arcade. "That Nothing is Evidence to Those to Whom it is not Evident" talks about an elephant who refuses to believe in butterflies that dies when someone doesn't believe in him. It's funny, but the point is clear. Who are we to say something cannot be, just because we cannot conceive of it ourselves?

The third section, a short play, makes the characters self-aware of their surroundings. No matter what they wish to do, they've become too attached to their roles, and can neither remove the clothes given to them by stage direction nor even remember their original names (if names they ever had). Despite this self-awareness, the players are still helpless to do anything other than their prescribed roles. I love how Olson created these characters and makes them speak about their use in theatre while also showing that we in life may also be just as trapped in our parts, even if we do know our own names.

Olson's Penny Arcade was a hidden gem for me. I loved the poetry and would definitely read more by him in the future. If you can find a copy of this book, and you like poetry that exposes life for what it is without getting maudlin, I think you'll find it every bit the treat that the original penny arcades were back in the day. I know I did!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Poe's Children edited by Peter Straub

I'm a big fan of classic horror, but for some reason, I have a hard time managing to find good new horror writers. I was hoping that maybe this anthology, collected by a veteran of the horror genre, would help me find a new voice or two.

Fortunately for me, it did, but overall, I'm not sure that there's enough quality stories to make this anthology one I'd recommend to others. There's just not quite enough there worth reading, at least for me, to balance out the stories I didn't like.

I really enjoyed the first story, "The Bees," where a man trying to run from his past may have it brought back on him no matter what he does. It's a classic horror trick, using a character's failings to drive the narrative and Dan Chaon uses it to good effect. I was left with a strong hope that maybe this would be the time I got the stories I wanted in a horror collection.

Sadly, that vibe didn't last long, as most of the other stories just didn't have enough going on for me to want to read more from that writer. They weren't bad, per se (though I found Elizabeth Hand's story to be offensive and skipped it after about getting halfway through), but I didn't really get into the writing or feel anything, positive or negative, towards them.

In a few cases, the author tries a bit too hard. "The Man on the Ceiling", a joint effort between Melanie and Steve Tem, probably overreached in its attempt to be experimental. I'm still not sure I understood what they were trying for, other than their lives impact on the stories they write? "Louise's Ghost" didn't seem to have a reason to be a ghost story, which is clearly a problem. A simple re-write, and it's a standard piece of literary fiction.

"The Voice of the Beach" by Ramsey Campbell, was probably my favorite story. Our narrator finds that a part of a beach has a strange attraction for certain people, and finds that call is irresistible. As with Chaon, Campbell uses a classic concept to good effect, and I guess it shows my story bias that I like these tales more than the rest. (In addition, I see that Campbell is not a new writer, either, which makes me a bit sad.)

As my reading went on, I just wasn't satisfied with the selections made by Mr. Straub, finding that they had the same problems I've seen in other anthologies of this type, with writers adding sex to give an otherwise boring story some shock value. Others seem to wander too much and don't ever end up really giving me a thrill in the way that I can get by reading the atmospheric horror of Poe or others from the 19th Century.

I think the problem is that horror is a much harder genre to write than people give it credit for. You almost have to write it over and over again, and know that you're going to have some hits and misses. I think Stephen King is the best example of this. Cujo is horrifying but Needful Things was just annoying. Spend too much time grossing people out, and you lose me. But if you don't give me some really terrible stuff to imagine in my head, then I'm wandering off to other stories.

In this book, there are more misses than hits, which is why I can't really recommend it to someone else. There's the obvious good stories by King, Straub himself, and Neil Gaiman, but you can get those writers elsewhere, either in other anthologies or in their own collections or full length books. Beyond that, it gets a bit tricky.

For every "Plot Twist," where David J. Schow places his characters in a Twilight-zone like scenario where nothing seems to change except the characters' ability to wrong each other, there's a "Leda," the story before it, where I feel like a victimized woman's feelings are reduced to story fodder for a weird fantasy that involves predatory animals.

After awhile, I became rather disheartened because an anthology where you're only getting stories you like about a third of the time is a bit rough. I usually hope for at least better than half, between love and like. Straub's selections, when you take out the major writers, just didn't click with me sufficiently for this book to be one I'd want to read again.

If you go into Poe's Children looking for some new voices and can deal with hitting more than a few tales you won't remember for long after reading them, it should be okay. But if you are iffy on anthologies in the first place, and only want a book that features a level playing field, I think you're best served to look elsewhere.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Picasso at the Lapin Angile and other Plays by Steve Martin

Most people who are reading who know me should find it unsurprising that I really like Steve Martin, particularly his early career, when the man seemed to be liable to do just about anything for a laugh.

As he's aged, his humor has changed with it, and I don't always find Martin's new style to be to my liking. Sadly, when he does try to capture some of the old magic (see Pink Panther), you can tell that it's forced. The light just isn't on, and the jokes suffer for it.

That's why I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every single one of the four plays contained in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, showing that when the Hollywood mindset is taken out of the equation, Martin can put together a work that is both deep in thought and rich in jokes that are obvious, subtle, and sarcastic--just the very things that made him so good for all those years.

I'd only known of the title work when I picked this up. I remember there being a little bit of buzz that Martin had written a play, but after that, nothing. The story revolves around the idea of Albert Einstein meeting Pablo Picasso shortly before both have breakthroughs in their career. They're joined by a few other people, who are used to contrast the two titans as well as a rather familiar stranger who has a few words about fame.

Obviously, part of the fun is watching Martin manipulate the brilliant but often a bit flighty Einstein and the opportunistic Picasso. They say things that match their characters as we know them best, but also withhold some of their talent, because they haven't reached it yet. There are quite a few moments where Martin's wit shines through, such as when another character can't get that Eisnstein thinks in universal terms. In another part of the play, Martin's ability to cut to the quick and expose the darkness of humanity showcases itself, as a conquest of Picasso's doesn't act as she should, and goes on to talk about how she's familiar with "men like him," i.e. those who like a constant woman so they have a backup plan when their affairs fall apart.

It's the blending of the comedy with the insight that makes this play work so well. While Martin is no Shakespeare, he does catch on that the best plays are funny on their surface, but hide layers of depth when you start to think about them. He uses humor and sarcasm and irony to show that in the end, science and art must both have their place at the table--and watch carefully that commercialism doesn't eat them alive in this unknown future of the 20th Century that is before them.

The other three plays are shorter, and tend to be more of exercises in thought. The Zig Zag Woman is an exercise in philosophy with a tinge of bitterness, and discusses things that are absolutely absurd. It's a chance for Martin to make commentary on convention and the idea of relationship. Unfortunately, I don't think it works quite as well it should, because the conceit feels, well, out of shape. I wonder if it would be better seen in person.

Patter for the Floating Lady offers an insight into the hurts that can happen when two people are in a relationship and one wants to be the controlling figure all of the time. Deftly using the metaphor of a magician and his assistant, Martin shows the danger of this idea, and what the controlling person loses by trying to take too much, too fast. His realization is as crashing as the end of his act, but in the end, we see by his final words that he's learned nothing. Though this is but a short scene, it carries a powerful weight. This is not funny in any way, but shows off Martin's ability to capture a feeling and make it work on the printed page (or in person).

WASP is a bit longer, and is the most straightforward of the four works. It's a clear condemnation of the fallacy of the ideal family. From the opening lines that starts with a prayer denying scientific truth to the end, where the cold and authoritarian father states that since he never got love, why should he give it to others (even if he can, which is doubtful), this is biting satire that will make you bleed if you touch its edge.

I only know a bit about Martin's life growing up, but I can't help but think this work has some personal moments in it. You don't write such out of touch, out of sync characters without knowing what that's like. Similarly, you can't fully appreciate it if your life didn't have its own moments, maybe not exactly like these, but with similar themes. Those who feel their lives were perfect (or who live in denial of what they had to deal with) are going to miss the boat.

Not everything is perfect. This satire is a bit heavy-handed at times, such as when the father objects to getting rid of his lawn jockeys or when he can't even remember his daughter's name. However, I don't think a few moments of hitting us on the head with a hammer dilute the power of seeing how the little ways in which we go about our lives can add up to serious problems.

I'd love to see any of these plays in person, but in all of them, words are of primary importance. I was able to realize the quality and meaning of the play easily, without being able to watch it in person. Reading plays can be a tricky thing, but in this case, I think they worked well, a tribute to Martin's careful crafting and a sign that while his other writing was for the big screen, he's no novice to plotting, character, and wordplay.

Picasso at the Lapin Angile is one of the better plays I've read, and definitely one of the best modern plays to cross my book list, though I admit the latter category is a bit limited. The others are all also very good, and make for a solid collection. If you are a fan of drama or Steve Martin, reading (and maybe, if you're lucky, seeing) these plays is highly recommended.