Sunday, July 17, 2011

Not about a book for once: Steampunk Henna

My friend, Carmel, is super-awesome, multi-talented and an overall cool lady. She's also a Henna Artiste Extraordinaire and agreed to give me some steampunk henna for my birthday.

I think it turned out wonderfully!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mourning the Boy Who Lived: A Eulogy

My life changed forever because my mother had a doctor's appointment. I was 14 years old and she had trusted me to the safety of a chain bookstore while she went to her appointment a few doors down. I didn't get an allowance, but she had given me twenty dollars so that I could buy a book and a snack while I waited.
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" had just come out in hardcover and there were displays everywhere. I had not yet heard of this Potter fellow, but as I read the back of the book, I was immediately interested. And then I realized this was book #3, which meant there were books #1 and #2 around somewhere. I found a paperback copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on a nearby rack and settled myself in for a read.
What felt like moments later, my mother stood over me, ready to leave. I had read myself into Diagon Alley and I had to know what happened next. So, I purchased the book and continued reading. I read in the car, I read in the back room of my mother's furniture store, I read at the dinner table (much to my father's chagrin). And, when I finished, I insisted that my mother sit down in the family room and let me read it to her out loud.
I was inextricably hooked. I bought "Chamber of Secrets" and "Prisoner of Azkaban" and devoured them. I pre-ordered "Goblet of Fire" from Amazon and was in the bathtub when the package arrived. The UPS man was very startled to have a dripping wet 15 year old girl open the door in nothing but a beach towel, snatch the box, and leave her bewildered father with the details.

Before I knew Shakespeare's Hermione, I knew Rowling's and, Krum-like, I pronounced it Her-mee-own for the first two books. I fell in love with Rowling's brand of magic - new and old, practical and ridiculous. I loved the ideas of boarding school, of Quidditch, of house points and centaurs and steam trains. Everything about it conjured something new and wonderful.
My sophomore year of college, the first film came out, and, while it wasn't perfect, it brought a solidity and reality to the world I so desperately wanted to be a part of. And then there were more books and more movies - I celebrated each release with fervor, among the first in line to get the newest installment or adaptation. I studied abroad in England between my junior and senior years of college; and standing on the steps at Christ Church college, all I could hear was Maggie Smith's voice saying "Welcome to Hogwarts." I worked at a bookstore when the fifth book was released and, dressed as Rita Skeeter, interviewed local children for the newspaper.

And now we've gotten to the inevitable. Friday morning at 12:05am, I will sit in the theatre for the last installment of Harry Potter. Then, it will all be over. Sure, I can go back and re-read the books, re-watch the films, experience Rowling's recently announced Pottermore. Last January, I went to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and had what, for me, is the closest I'll ever get to a religious experience.
But, it won't be the same. I have lived the last 11 years of my life in a constant state of anticipation. The next Harry Potter book/film has always been just around the corner. On Friday morning, when I leave the theatre, I know I will feel the bleak desperation that finds us all on Christmas afternoon. This thing that we've looked forward to is now finished - but instead of a day, or a week, a month, or even a year of anticipating, I have been anticipating for almost half my life.

A friend of mine said that when the credits roll on this last Harry Potter film, she knows that her childhood is truly over. The same cannot be said for me. My childhood ended when I called my mother from 3,000 miles away and found out that my father had passed away. Then, I retreated to Hogwarts - to the familiarity of the Great Hall and the Black Lake and the Gryffindor Common Room. To the characters I love like friends I have known my whole life.
These stories have been with me through a cross-country move, a parent's passing, college, dating, graduate school, marriage, jobs, becoming an adult. They taught me that "right" is flexible, that friendship trumps all, and that magic is where you find it.
And, while I'm sad that this, like all good things, must come to an end, I know that I will never see that lightning bolt font or hear the tinkling dum-da-da-duh-da-dum-dum dum-da-da-duh-dum without feeling a thrill of excitement and a tug of nostalgia.

To you, Harry Potter, the boy who lived. Thank you.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

100 Cupboards Full of Stale Stories

I read a lot. I would say between 6 and 8 books a month plus magazines, short stories, news articles. I'm further inundated with media through the internet, movie theaters, and the glory which is Netflix through my Wii. On top of all this, I have a master's degree in children's literature and I am always seeking out the best children's and YA literature out there.

Sometimes I find something incredible (see the forthcoming Philip Reeve piece), but usually I am nonplussed and, occasionally, my heart gets broken. Such is the story of N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards and its two sequels.

As we have all been told, familiarity breeds contempt, and my familiarity with traditional sword-and-sorcery quest tales has long since reached full saturation. Wilson's first book 100 Cupboards begins what one hopes will be a very promising, very different type of fantasy story.

The young Henry York moves to his aunt and uncle's farmhouse in Kansas after his adoptive parents are kidnapped while on assignment in a foreign country. He is given a room in the attic and one night awakes to strange noises behind the wall and pieces of plaster in his hair. He, of course, investigates (otherwise, there wouldn't be a story).

What he finds are 99 cupboard doors in the wall and a compass dial for unlocking each one individually. He manages to open some and glimpse worlds not in Kansas. One in particular strikes a nerve with him and he begins to wonder if he is a transplant from another place.

What makes 100 Cupboards so interesting and different is that it explores the feeling all children have that their parents are not their parents, that they are from some far off place. The book deftly compares the brightness and reality of Kansas with the brooding mysteriousness of "the other place." Henry questions what he knows about his past and his identity, and when he finds a means to travel (via the 100th cupboard, located elsewhere in the farmhouse) to the other worlds, he realizes that his suspicions regarding his origin are true.

The book ends with a climactic battle between good and evil - good in his Kansas family and evil in the form of a witch from one of the other cupboard worlds. What is important is that Henry chooses to stand with his adoptive family, identifying with the people who have supported and loved him.

Wilson, however, denies his own premise in the second and third books, Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King. These texts become quest fables in a second-rate Middle Earth knock-off, a world populated by cardboard cutout maidens, fairies, soldiers, and kings. The trees are paper-mache and the stars sputter with failing electric energy. Henry finds his "real" family in the world beyond one of the cupboard doors and he must quest to save "his world" from an attack by the witch who featured in the climax of 100 Cupboards.

He rides horses, shoots arrows, swordfights, etc. etc. but he doesn't really ever return to Kansas. Kansas, in fact, has been all but cut off from the cupboard worlds. Henry no longer exists as part of the Earthly human race.

The reader is left to wonder why 100 Cupboards exists at all. The trilogy feature two totally different narratives forced onto one protagonist. The lovely, atmospheric, nostalgic questioning of one's own past and place is struck down in favor of the much easier to swallow "adventures of a chosen one."

Why must they all be chosen, be princes in disguise, have quests? Why can't they explore, in an imaginative and compelling way, the questions that all children ask themselves. Who am I? Why am I here? Who are these people who surround me?

Friday, May 28, 2010

What I've Been Reading

The Hungry City Chronicles by Philip Reeve
Mortal Engines
Predator's Gold
Infernal Devices
The Darkling Plain

Larklight by Philip Reeve

Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Dramaturgical Wunderkammern

Dramaturgs do not exist merely to save directors, actors, and designers a trip to the library. The information that they compile serves as more than a specialized encyclopedia that explains the historical references, glosses the unfamiliar words, and outlines the aspects of a director's concept. Rather, dramaturgs create organized, but diverse collections of items that provide a means of contemplation for her audience – the director, the designer, the playwright, and the actor. Entering into a dramaturgical installation or reading a dramaturgy research packet should be like entering or opening a Wunderkammern, or cabinet of curiosities. There much be the dual impulse to be awed by the amount and variety of the content and to be drawn into it to discover more or add to what exists.

Close your eyes and imagine a marble rotunda with a compass legend inlaid into the floor. Around the circumference of this vast cylinder are a dozen doors. Each door has a brass plaque engraved with bold text. Behind each door lies another rotunda with another eleven doors; each of those doors have a brass plaque, as well. This dodecagon fractal might expand eternally – an architectural Koch snowflake. The only limitation on this structure, like the seemingly endless Winchester Mystery House, for example, is time; otherwise, each room could inform another into eternity. This building is an architectural metaphor for dramaturgy in practice, and aptly grasps at the infinite possibilities which the field encompasses.

The architecture, though grand, seems insignificant in comparison to the Wunderkammern it holds. This museum of research and creative organization holds the considerations of a collector, the dramaturg. The actor, director, or designer enters this cabinet of dramatic curiosities at its hub, the play itself. Off this hub, Macbeth, for example, the doors may be labeled - “English Early Modern Drama,” “History,” and “Design.” Through the door marked “History,” an interested individual may find further doors marked “The Scottish Monarchy,” “Scottish/English Relations,” and “The Scots at War.” These doors continue on into rooms filled with weapons, death masks, cloaks, and maps, anything and everything that may fit into the ever more specific confines of it labeled door. Dramaturgy, as a discipline, draws from the mindset of the Early Modern private collectors of curiosities in creating its theatrical museum. The dramaturg, as a collector, seeks to create a museum of the minds by which the practitioner can be further inspired.

But, how does the visitor affect the layout of this museum? The director, actor, and designer have different goals when they use the dramaturgical Wunderkammern, and the dramaturg much realize the those goals and organize the information to suit. For a director or designer, the dramaturg may serve as the acquisitions specialist and docent of materials. For the actors, one might serves as an Information Desk clerk, providing a map and general directions, but letting each person take their own path through the museum, picking a choosing what interests and is relevant. A playwright is a different animal altogether. A dramaturg, in working with a playwright, becomes the assistant to the new play's Ashmole or Smithson. The playwright has set the foundation for this collection. He has created the rooms with his scenes, allusions, and word choices, and the job of the dramaturg is to get the museum ready for public consumption. Each practitioner approached the Wunderkammern from a unique angle and with different goals, and it is the job of the dramaturg to meet the needs with specificity.

The dramaturg endeavors to both enlighten and inspire by providing the information necessary to answer a production's demands with accuracy, while also providing information, images, and media intended to inspire the director, designer, and actor to explore the museum as far as its fractal can take them.

The thought process behind creative collection, ingenious taxonomy, and careful presentation marks the difference between a dramaturg and a scholar. They share many traits, but their goals are different. The scholar endeavors to enlighten, but the dramaturg undertakes to inspire. Within a wonder cabinet, there’s no single, prescribed path of analysis, but an excess of intuitive possibilities, and the dramaturg seeks, within the Wunderkammern of a play, to lead the director, designer, actor, or scholar to the exhibits that most serve their creative needs. In creating a traditional dramaturgy packet or in casting the foundation for a devised piece, the dramaturg must aspire to the same ideals as the Early Modern men who created the original Wunderkammern. We must create something that will illume, explain, inspire, and intrigue; we must create the universe of the play in microcosm and open this cabinet of dramaturgical wonders to all those who wish to enter.

The books I plan to read

Whenever I walk into a bookstore or a library, I have an overwhelming bittersweetness come over me. The joy that so many words mingle together in this one place, creating glorious narratives and emotions and histories; sharing knowledge and advice; striving to entertain and enlighten combines in a moment with the realization that I may read only 1% of all these things and that I will go to my grave having missed so much and I want to cry. I sometimes feel I know why the library at Alexandria must have been torched to the ground.

All that being said, I still have many books on the back burner, and here is an ever increasing list. Let me know if any of these are skippable to make room for another!

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Magic Men

Recently, I finished rereading The Prestige by Christopher Priest. I think it ranks as one of my favorite books. It has all the elements I find appealing in a novel - Historical setting, fantasy elements, a twist of some sort, and complex characters. It also has what I would normally consider a strike against it - first person narrative throughout (for five different characters!). However, Priest handles this choice so deftly that the narrative style becomes intrinsic to the story, which is how things should be.

The story itself is a steampunk infused, pseudo late-gothic thriller. The first-person narratives sit like nesting dolls, one within another, and the reader must crack open the shell of Andrew's mystery to get to the Lady Angier's to get to Borden's to get to Rupert's. The revelations occur slowly but satisfyingly, but, once the final mystery is unearthed (literally), the shells snap back, closing both the remaining characters and the reader out of the fantastic history and thrusting them, shivering, into the cold of reality.

The film adaptation, by virtue of its medium must needs differ from the novel, but's review of The Prestige sums the matter up quite nicely. Daniel Carlson writes, "Magic and movies are a lot alike, notably because some essence of the thing is inherently lost in the dissection. On one level, it’s disappointing to find out the magician’s secret: That’s all? He palmed the coin? He forced the card? Then again, I never was one to subscribe to Mark Twain’s sad belief that learning to pilot a riverboat robbed the Mississippi of its beauty; to me, learning the trick only enhances the showmanship used to pull it off. However, people are often tempted to carry that sense of letdown, of betrayal, over into cinema, especially when it comes to movies built upon misdirection and a killer twist."

He's right in some respects, but what you lose in the genre shift is the overreaching effect that the main characters' actions have on their families into the present day. In the film, the twist satisfies less, not because you can chalk it up to "movie magic" but because the trick is revealed within the tricksters' lifetimes. The book, as is almost always the case, far surpasses the book - allowing the story to exist within various types of text - a history within a diary within a first-person novel narrative. In the film, the jumps back and back and then forward again sometimes lose the viewer and one is left unsure if this is happening "now" or if this is something that has happened before. The film is a lovely addition to the tale of The Prestige; something, perhaps, better enjoyed with the book rather than instead of it.