A not-analysis.

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Number 1A – Jackson Pollock (1948)

Let’s not try to pretend here that we’re nine-year-olds looking for shapes in the clouds or that if we cross our eyes just so, some identifiable object will emerge from this tangle of lines and blobs. This is a drip painting, a form created much in the way you would think based on it’s appearance, by pouring and splattering paint, making any search for a single, definite purpose futile. The job of a viewer of abstract art, especially of the more esoteric pieces, is not to analyze and search for meaning, figures, or message, it is to feel the art. I feel the need to defend this notion against naysayers who call this sort of thing pretentious: my personal definition of art, which applies to writing, performance, painting, and beyond, is anything that makes an audience feel “some type of way”. By this definition, each person’s experience of what is art and what it means can and should vary based on previous exposure and preferences. Personally, abstract art has always seemed a bit baffling, but this piece seems to suggest dancing around the canvas, adding paints on impulse – in short, freedom.

Nancy Sullivan wrote the following poem entitled “Number 1 by Jackson Pollock (1948)” inspired by this piece:

No name but a number.
Trickles and valleys of paint
Devise this maze
Into a game of Monopoly
Without any bank. Into
A linoleum on the floor
In a dream. Into
Murals inside of the mind.
No similes here. Nothing
But paint. Such purity
Taxes the poem that speaks
Still of something in a place
Or at a time.
How to realize his question
Let alone his answer?

Sullivan dismisses attempts to forcefully rationalize the piece, catching the reader off guard by calling to mind commonplace objects and concepts – Monopoly and linoleum flooring – in unfamiliar contexts – without money or in a dream, respectively. The response she believes the piece prompts takes viewers out of their comfort zones of objective reality and into the realm of imagination. Her final rhetorical question addresses just this fact: we will never know precisely what Pollock was thinking when he was creating this piece, so meaning must be derived on an individual basis. She goes on to say that even her own poem does the artwork a disservice, “speak[ing] still of something in a place or a time”, still trying to put some words to an indescribable experience and asserting her opinion about the piece…

…which makes me feel like I should stop writing before I mar your experience of Pollock’s work even more than I already have.


 

1 It really bothers me that I’m analyzing something that says not to analyze something else. It just feels off.

Farewell to Starman.

confusingbowie
So which of you is the real David Bowie?… oh…

 

A google image search for “David Bowie” returns a host of dissimilar faces, some only identifiable as pictures of Bowie by his left eye. Just as his personal styles has changed over his decades-long career, Bowie’s musical style was also in constant development. While there is no song or album that is quintessentially David Bowie (he dipped a toe in almost everything), I’ll be looking at one of his most well-known songs and one of my personal favorites, Space Oddity (1969), in memory of that eclectic but nonetheless exceptional artist.

 

Space Oddity – David Bowie

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom (Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (Five, Four, Three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (Two, One, Liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you…

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

While this song outwardly appears to be about an astronaut who finds himself feeling weirdly at home in space, the lyrics are widely accepted to describe Bowie himself (or any rising star, for that matter) who is just beginning to experience the world of stardom. Major Tom’s physical height above the rest of the world is heavily suggestive of Bowie’s growing fame, and questions about “whose shirts1 you wear” further suggest the public’s interest in his personal life. However, Tom’s remark that “the stars” (as in celebrities) “look very different” suggests that fame is not what it seems to outsiders: in fact, it is alienating as indicated by Major Tom’s loss of contact with Ground Control, drifting off into space, and his helplessness (“and there’s nothing I can do”) to stop himself from floating away. This view frames Spaces Oddity as a sort of soft and still somewhat unaware prequel to Fame (1975), a cry out against the manipulative and heartless treatment of great artists by their managers and labels.

 

 


1 “Shirts” is probably a reference to sports teams, but asking about his actual shirts would also qualify as invasive, actually, even more so

On The Martian.

Andy Weir’s episodic survival novel The Martian has gained international interest after the release of a film adaptation of the same name starring the always in-demand Matt Damon. Here, I’ll be covering both, their differences, and probably spoiling them a little bit. Sorry.

The basic plots of the two are generally parallel. At some point in the not-so-distant future, astronaut-botanist Mark Watney is left for dead on the planet Mars after he is impaled by a piece of flying debris in a dust storm and the rest of the Ares III crew is forced to leave the planet without him. With only his wit, determination, and copious amounts of disco music, Watney surmounts an endless barrage of challenges and complications to establish sources of food, communication with NASA, and a dangerous escape plan, which eventually earns him a safe return to Earth.

Much of the pleasure of reading Weir’s novel is in the careful attention to detail and extensive research behind Mark’s immense resourcefulness. The novel’s plausibility is expanded by the depiction of the sassy and intelligent Mark, whose tongue-in-cheek humor and realistic emotions and reactions provide a welcome contrast to the painstaking detail of his troubleshooting. These two elements, while present, are both sadly lacking in the film adaptation. This along with a lack of development in supporting characters, an excessive focus on events happening on Earth, the censorship of a small book’s worth of expletives, an unexceptional soundtrack1, and the half-baked feel, fabrication, or entire omission of many plot elements (rover modifications, the trip to Schiaparelli, Beck-Johanssen romance2, etc.) make the movie pale in comparison to Weir’s original.

But of course, it’s very easy to find fault in a two hour-long movie attempting to cover a 400-page novel while remaining palatable to a wider, less scientifically inclined audience. The greatest asset of the movie was, as one may expect, its visuals. Beautiful but expected CGI aside, the movie was able to invoke a graver atmosphere than the book at times, for example when Watney exits the shower and we are able to see what heavy labor and strict rationing of food has done to his body and his once-resilient expression over a seven-month gap in the movie’s course.

As a general rule, books provide a fuller and more immersive experience than their movie counterparts, and The Martian is no exception. That being said, both are, in my opinion, definitely worth experiencing.

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1 unless you’re Commander Lewis

2 what happened to “don’t tell anyone I liked it”?!

 

Life change: Grendel.

After reading and thinking about a book like John Gardner’s Grendel, it’s only natural to wonder about the author’s intentions in writing. Fortunately, we have access to some such information through Gardner’s letter in response to Susie West and three of her students who wrote essays regarding Grendel.

One of the most important points Gardner makes in his letter is that experiencing art is an individual undertaking, for one work can have variable effects on readers of different maturities searching for different kinds of experiences1. I think this point is pretty self-evident and not contradicted by the insights Gardner offers throughout his letter, considering that the students have apparently already put significant independent thought into the book.

One particularly clarifying statement Gardner made about the book was that, in writing his version of Gren’s death, Gardner did mean to convey Beowulf as Gren’s deliverer. By forcing Gren to recognize that, through approaching understanding of his place in the world from such a negative angle, he has become insensitive, condescending, and brutish, Beowulf gives Gren release from his tormented life, if only for a few moments. This is not to say that Gren is completely to blame, however, for his fate; it just seems all-around unfortunate that the dragon was the first “absolute truth teller” as Gardner calls him that Gren encountered in life. Reading this was particularly pleasing to me, as those who heard my spiel in class discussion probably understand2.

It’s also worth noting that, while Gardner did seem to make something of a jab at the student essays, I’d wager that he didn’t receive any sort of satisfaction from being “sassy”, as his comments have only half jokingly been referred to in class. If Gardner is as thoughtful a man as we should take authors of philosophical novels like Grendel to be, he probably had no malicious intent in pointing out the students’ misunderstandings about the book. Indeed, the reader who thought, essentially, that Gardner embraced existentialism was in great need of some… instruction. In explaining his views on the question Grendel addresses, whether personal values are still warranted with the understanding that all existences and memories will eventually reach their ends, Gardner probably meant to offer guidance toward the kinds of realizations he really wanted to promote in his writing.

 


1 For instance, those of us who read SparkNotes rather than the novel were probably not searching for much of an experience at all.

2 I still love you, Yusha. But yeah gg get wrecked.

Lindner, how are we supposed to choose one.

Aaahh… this prompt tears1 me up.

See here, the lyrics of In My Life written (probably2) by John Lennon.

In My Life

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more

In my life I love you more

This song, with its sentimental vein and comforting guitar riff, almost made me cry upon first listen. I would assume that most people have in their hearts people and places and things of great significance that, for some reason or another, are no longer a part of their regular routines. That seems to be the major draw for this song, because although it was initially written by one man about a lost friend, it remains applicable to almost anyone.

This song’s statement about sentiment was revelatory to approximately one year younger me, namely, that it is not weird to be very fond of and think often of the past, but that we should still try to seek happiness in the present with those people, places, and things that we can enjoy for the time being. The best part of this song is that it neither commands that we clean the slate and cast off our bittersweet memories nor wallows in agony about things that are no more, but fondly acknowledges both the past and present. Fast forward six months from now3, and this song may possibly be my life anthem; we’ll see how sentimental I get.

Check it out 4:


1 Tears used in the sense of tearing paper. I really think there’s a need for a spelling distinction.

2 As ever, the Beatles can’t seem to decide exactly who wrote each of their songs.

3 Senior life holla

4 EDIT: So in revisiting, I realized the original video I posted was definitely not sung by the Beatles themselves. Here’s a real(ish) one that, while sketchy, is at least the correct version. Judy Collins also did a nice little cover.

Memory lane in summertime.

With the hot weather comes the relief of the load of homework finally being lifted and an excessive amount of free time for us school-aged children. I recently spent one evening scanning my bookshelf halfway expecting some new volume to materialize, and the familiar spine of a book I hadn’t touched since elementary school caught my eye. Pretty soon, an hour had gone by as I surveyed the largely untouched shelf of my childhood favorites… and a few unsavory ones (I’m no longer a big fan of Rani in the Mermaid Lagoon). To me, books written for “children” can often still hold a lot of meaning. Rereading them when I’m older allows me to understand the events, themes, and symbols I glossed over or misunderstood when I was younger, or simply provide less demanding, more plot-driven reading – not to mention the waves of nostalgia I personally experience when I cracked open these old books. I’ve detailed a few of my old favorites, so if you’re interested in a bit of light reading, I invite you to check these books out!

1. When You Reach Me — Rebecca SteadWhen_you_reach_me

This book is hard to classify, but it’s like nothing I’ve read before. It discusses a gritty but glorious period of time in the life of a young girl in the New York City of the 1970s, and it involves time travel, a perfectly awing combination. It has a simple feel – the chapters are short and the writing style is undecorated – but all of that contributes to a simply fantastic storyline. Even the minimalistic cover art turns out to be infinitely more important than it may initially seem. If you like books with plots that suddenly fall together and leave you thinking, I highly recommend this novel.

gummstreet2. The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls — Elise Primavera

This book is a real mind trip. And really long. The storyline is quirky with more than its fair share of twists, turns, and Wizard of Oz references, but its eerie atmosphere forces you to bond with the four somewhat disagreeable girls the story revolves around as they are forced to bond with each other against a foe who will probably make you shiver. Trust me, Cha Cha Staccato is terrifying.

ElyonAll3. The Land of Elyon Series — Patrick Carman

While I don’t usually go for fantasy, this series is one notable exception for me. It holds a special place in my heart, as I read it starting in second grade and finished over the course of five years, purchasing one book each year as they were released, and thus became really invested in the fate of soft-spoken Alexa Daley. I love the mood of this book, which is perfectly portrayed by the cover art – it’s soft and subdued, but adventurous, and I feel like I would really love to live in the world Carman created and meet the wise and diverse characters that inhabit this world on the brink of takeover by forces of evil. This series is also notable because it has one of those rare *actually good* prequels, Into the Mist. Awesome.

63638234. The Magician’s Nephew — C. S. Lewis

So I lied when I said Into the Mist was one of the only good prequels I’ve read. While most of the popular hype about The Chronicles of Narnia is given to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, I personally prefer this book. The origin story for this series is really flawless, and while it’s sad to think that the four siblings of the aforementioned sequel didn’t get to experience the multitude of other worlds that existed in this first book, I’m glad we get to see it and some characters we know well from such a new point of view and in such rich and beautiful detail.

EgyptGame5. The Egypt Game — Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Like many good children’s books that end up hitting us hard when we’re older, this book begins lightly with a child’s imaginary game and suddenly unravels into much darker, more serious themes (I’m looking at you, The Watsons Go to Birmingham). The children’s takes on the myths and ceremonies of Ancient Egypt remind me very much of the games of make-believe I played as a child, and I’ve always had a penchant for Ancient Egyptian history. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t really recommend the sequel. This book is where it’s at.

maticover26. Matilda — Roald Dahl

No list of children’s books could be complete without a Dahl book. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the bright, charming little Matilda and to root for her as she attempts to develop her mind in spite of her derisive family and abhorrent school principal. The movie adaptation of this book is excellent, but nothing can replace the classic, expressive ink illustrations that fill this book. The humor, pitfalls, and triumphs of this book are delightful, just what you would expect from Dahl.

51I+56UlczL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_7. Falling Up — Shel Silverstein

I’m not really well-versed in literary poetry, but I’ve memorized every page of my beloved Shel Silverstein anthology. Every one of his smart, and even openly mocking little poems reflects his personal style, one that I’ve come to recognize and enjoy immensely. It’s hard not to appreciate these simple rhymes paired with matching ink drawings.

I made an airplane out of stone…

I always did like staying home.

Tell me you didn’t chuckle… at least internally.

little-princess-book-cover8. A Little Princess — Frances Hodgson Burnett

This story is a classic tale of, not rags to riches, but the reverse. Though it isn’t exactly realistic, readers can empathize with the tragedy that the little princess faces and share her joy when she finally has her happy ending. It belongs in the class of books with novels like The Secret Garden – stories of children growing and changing, undergoing hardships that I couldn’t really imagine, and ending up in good places by following their instincts of morality and hoping that their situations would eventually improve.

Book.littlehouseonprairie9. Little House on the Prairie Series — Laura Ingalls Wilder

I feel like most people know what this wildly successful (I’m not sure if I want that to be a pun or not) series is about, and a lot of people act like they think it’s silly. Personally, I think everyone can find some place in his or her heart with which to love this series. Something about the way frontier families lived seems to continue to fascinate people. I don’t think this kind of heartwarming story will ever go out of style.

lemony_snicket_a_series_of_unfortunate_events_the_bad_beginning_cover10. A Series of Unfortunate Events — Lemony Snicket

At a whopping thirteen volumes, A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of the longest and most depressing series I read in elementary, and the steadily increasing length of the volumes began to put an increasing weight on both my young arms and my psyche. Nevertheless, I fought hard on library websites and in the stacks to secure at least three books ahead of the book I was currently reading should I find that the book I needed was gone the next day. Why? Because every book, every unique adventure was fantastic. I wanted so badly to see justice for the Baudelaire siblings and a torturous end for the most clearly evil villain I knew of, Count Olaf. I was inspired by the genius of the children, particularly Violet, and their maturity in the midst of all the incompetent adults around them gives hope that some day, the children may finally get the happy ending they deserve.

A_wrinkle_in_time_digest_200711. A Wrinkle in Time Quintet — Ruth Stiles Gannett

This series is known to be one of the greatest works of juvenile fiction, and for good reason. To me, one of the most striking features of the series is the range of situations covered in the books, particularly the first one. From the life of a troubled schoolgirl to quasi-psychedelia and from budding romance to the G-rated version of the world of 1984, this book truly has a lot going on. It’s relatable yet fantastical and undeniably heartening – what more can you ask from a children’s book?

phantomtollbooth12. The Phantom Tollbooth — Norton Juster

There is no doubt that you missed something the first time you read The Phantom Tollbooth. To a child, this book is not much more than a wild adventure of a young boy through a strange land. To those who appreciate word play, the book is teeming with punning and clever witticisms. To those looking for a life lesson, they will most certainly find one. This book seems to me to be seeking to instill an appreciation for learning in readers of all ages, and it does so in a playful, and original way.

Happy reading!

Note: Sorry about the atrocious formatting…. WordPress, you’re killing me!

“The voice of God.”

Designs on an early Cocteau Twins album cover.
Designs on an early Cocteau Twins album cover.

Transcendentalism – a lot of people find this mindset baffling, idealistic, and impractical. While its short life as a movement does vouch for its strangeness, the ideas of the transcendentalists are not lost on open-minded readers, and anyone who has a concept of aspiration toward a state of enlightenment can appreciate the wisdom of transcendental minds and the way those men and women wielded the power of words to express their lofty ideas. One would be hard-pressed to find a modern-day transcendentalist, but the part of that ideology that resonates most with me is the necessity of becoming the best individual possible by learning to value yourself and your thoughts and how you are connected to nature and ultimately all other people and beings in the world.

Transcendentalists believed that revelations about life and humanity could be reached within one’s own mind, often while in nature. Although most people are no longer able to retreat into unpopulated areas, we are able to retreat into our own minds, and music is one way that I find allows me to limit distractions and enter a mindset of reflection. There’s one group in particular I know of that I feel embodies the spirit of transcendentalism. The Cocteau Twins was an alternative rock band that reached its peak of critical success in the 1980s as the champion of the ethereal genre of music. Featuring Elizabeth Fraser’s soaring soprano vocals, once referred to as “the voice of God”, and frequent glossolalia, the band’s music is considered unlistenable by many, as inaccessible, perhaps, as transcendentalism itself.

No, I did not write about Blowin’ in the Wind.

(although someone else did http://zthought.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/on-music/)

Nor did I choose to write about another one of my favorite songs by the Talking Heads, Psycho Killer. It’s slightly (read: very) cryptic and alarming and not really something that reflects my life or personality… probably. Check it out anyway if for no reason other than the awesome bass riff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yX6FsTIq6ls.

So after a pretty rough struggle, I ended up choosing another song by the Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
wife
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…

Water dissolving…and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean!

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
MY GOD!…WHAT HAVE I DONE?

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…

This song is by nature applicable to everyone; it speaks of the monotonous, fleeting nature of the days of our lives as they pass us by. In the first verse, the singer simply states a number of possible positions a person may be in: poor, rich, working, or married, and in all these cases, the subject is only faintly aware of how unsure he is about how he ended up in there. As the verses progress, the singer becomes more and more nervous and apprehensive about his lack of understanding, and his fears finally boil over with his exclamation “MY GOD! WHAT HAVE I DONE?”.

The chorus more or less explicitly states the significance of the song, and the nonsense remarks about water at the bottom of the ocean add to the impending sense of disaster. Byrne (the band’s lead singer) eventually breaks into one repeating, exasperated line “same as it ever was”, eventually fading into nothing.

The Talking Heads are known to write lyrics that implore the listener to take some sort of action in their own lives in response, and here, the message is clear: consider the importance of every day and, if at all possible, don’t forget the places you have been that  have led up to the present moment, or you may find yourself lost in the “silent water”.

This theme, carpe diem, is not unique and original, but its presentation in this song is particularly pressing to me and hopefully you when you listen to it. It’s right here.

A troubling children’s book.

2011_sylvester_art

I never actually owned “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” by William Steig myself, but I remember hearing it read aloud on multiple reruns of the PBS show Between the Lions.

[ Digression: Now that I think about it, that’s one of the most clever names for a kids’ show I’ve ever heard. In fact, it was definitely one of the most ingenious (albeit odd) shows I watched.]

In short summary, an avid pebble collector named Sylvester finds a magic pebble that can grant any wish so long as it is in direct physical contact with the one doing the wishing. After happening upon the pebble, Sylvester rushes home to share his good fortune with the rest of the town, but encounters a lion on his way. He panics and, in a blunder of dullness beyond my comprehension, wishes to become a rock. He loses contact with the pebble and is unable to return to donkey form. He remains this way for what appears to be at least a year, leaving his grief-stricken parents feeling lonely and purposeless. Then, by some twist of fate, his parents find the pebble and set it upon the very rock which is Sylvester, allowing him to wish himself back into a donkey. A predictable reunion full of happiness and hugs transpires.

I’m not sure what drew me to the book. In fact, I was, and still am, pretty tripped out by this story.

Utterly bland (if not unlikeable) protagonist? Okay.

Standard-fare watercolor illustrations? Fine.

Cliche plot twist? We can look past that.

Unrealistic happening that magically fixes everything? I can handle it.

But the extent to which the pain and sorrow of his parents is described was difficult for me to stomach. I suppose the only reason it was one of my favorite books was my intrigue involved with this struggle. I couldn’t understand what the author was trying to teach me. After her tragic loss, the mother donkey says something along the lines of “if we find Sylvester, I’ll never scold him again, no matter what he does”. This, to me, was not something that children such as myself should be taught. Without punishment for disobedience… I didn’t even know what would happen. That, along with the uneasiness that I felt after seeing the parents in such a sorry state, drove me crazy, and for some reason I liked it. I don’t really get it either.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that the point of the story might perhaps be that a parent’s love for their child or children is undying. I wish this had been clear to me earlier.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble — A particularly disturbing reading (with recurring jazz flute features (!) in the background).