Saturday, August 20, 2016

Look for the bare necessities

I finally watched The Jungle Book (on the plane, of all places). It only took a minute of Mowgli darting through the jungle for me to start kicking myself for not watching the film in 3D—the animation and cinematography are stunning.
Although the opening scene suggests danger, we realize soon after Bagheera pounces on Mowgli that our protagonist has a special place in the jungle. Raised by wolves, the man-cub calls the pack his family and considers the jungle his home. Yet he has never assimilated completely into the wild; unlike his brothers and sisters, he matures slowly and has a penchant for ‘tricks’ that set him apart from the animals. He lives in contradicting circumstances as someone who is at once accepted in the pack but also a clear exception to ‘The Law,' which emphasizes the importance of being wolf-like.

Mowgli’s sense of belonging is not seriously thrown in question until the water truce brings all the animals—including Shere Kahn, the most feared and menacing tiger of the jungle—to the same place. Bent on killing Mowgli, whose father scarred him with fire (the ‘red flower’) years ago, Shere Kahn will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Thus, Mowgli is told to return to the ‘man village,’ the only place he will be safe.

Threats are abound in the jungle, from the hypnotic Kaa (not the first time Scarlett Johansson’s voice has been used to seduce) to the towering and power-hungry King Louie (truly reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt).

“Don’t run away from who you are,” King Louie tells Mowgli, thinking that he is destined to wield the flower of death and destruction. His advice, however, can be reinterpreted to reflect the truth; Mowgli defeats Shere Kahn by fighting “like a man,” demonstrating the power of channeling one’s true aptitude through devising ‘tricks’ instead of repressing his instinct for tool making.  

It seems symbolic that Mowgli does not finish reciting The Law at the end of the film, for much of The Jungle Book is about the beauty of bending the rules. Bagheera’s very decision to take in Mowgli at the beginning already sets such a precedent. The story is an important reminder that anyone can harness their potential and overcome the stereotypes that entrap them (even the initially slothful and plodding Baloo, who ends up scaling a cliff).

The animals came together once during the water truce, but it is ultimately Mowgli who unites them in a sense of solidarity and shows them that friendship can transcend the barriers in a community that may seem dictated by a food chain.

The film was so enjoyable to watch—intense, humorous (can Bill Murray go wrong?), and moving. I love how the elephants command an Ent-like presence (the similarities are uncanny: both are venerated, walk slowly, and use great volumes of water to their advantage). Of course, I also love the soundtrack (apart from the two swing dance classics performed by Baloo and King Louie, the film’s epic orchestral rendition of The Bare Necessities is what made me want to watch it in the first place).

“I wanna be like you,” sings King Louie. But the film shows us that it is much better to be the individual you really are, no matter where you come from or who you live with. Mowgli is not a man or a cub; he is a man-cub, and he belongs in the jungle all the same.      

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A sliver of light

Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short StoriesFlash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories by James Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been binge-reading a lot of flash fiction lately, which is a pretty easy and wonderful thing to do anytime and anywhere. Riding the MTR, waiting for mom to finish her errands at the bank, sitting on the toilet ... you name it.

As the title of the anthology suggests, the stories in Flash Fiction Forward are each over in a flash, and the authors only have so many pages that they can use to surprise or move us.

Sometimes, the stories end too soon and expectations are not met. Most times, however, the pieces in this collection have shown me the magic of short form.

Many of the writers use the brevity of their stories to experiment with style: "Currents" is told backwards, "To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder" is a list of of orders ("Do not go outside. Do not go outside, on dates, or to the store..."), "Test" is a four-part 'exam' that makes you rethink your life (with Extra Credit, "Fully explain the ways in which you are wrong").

A lot of the stories also use their endings to effectively reverse the impressions that we formed at the beginning, meaning that our initial assumptions still linger in our heads by the time a story is over (after all, each one is so short) and make us wonder about what on earth just happened. In "Accident," a car accident that could have gone terribly wrong turns into an opportunity for the protagonist to potentially make new friends and come to terms with his loneliness; in "The Handbag," a crime devolves into an unusual and low-key romance story. In "The Good Life," a woman who seemingly has it all going for her turns out to be stuck in a rather dark place.

Due to their brevity, the stories also have the space to capture single symbols very wholesomely and memorably. In "Parrot Talk," our protagonist - like the parrot she talks about - has also "adapted to a hostile environment" and flourishes in it. In "Toasters," the image of two slices of bread popping out simultaneously (plus the heat/suspense/force that comes with it) echoes the double domestic fights happening in the story.

Short and daring, some stories also just simply throw you something bizarre and let you absorb it for a spell. "My Date with Neanderthal Woman" transfixes you from start to finish in all its brilliant strangeness and unconventionality, the ending of "Crazy Glue" feels like a dream, and "The Orange" is about a fruit that ruled the world (until it was eaten).

The last piece in the collection is called "Death of the Short Story," but the imagination and gusto of the stories in this anthology prove that the short-short story is more alive than ever. Even the ending of that last piece, which reveals how everyone started making up "lies about the Story," demonstrates the immortality of fiction. As writers and readers, we are indeed always waiting for "a sliver of light" to "break loose from the oblong, suspended momentarily like a musical note on fire before streaking recklessly into the surrounding night," inspiring our writing and illuminating our lives with a literal flash of fiction.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Life is jazz-shaped

Jazz PoemsJazz Poems by Kevin Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending such a long time being obsessed with jazz music, I guess it was only a matter of time before I also started reading jazz poetry.

I keep telling my students (I'm currently teaching spoken word poetry to kids) that poetry = music = poetry. Jazz Poems, with its selection of poems written about the genre and for its musicians, confirms this idea through and through. Like a band, the collection is divided into numerous sections: Vamping (early jazz poems), Swinging (my favourite, obviously), Bop, Horn Section, etc. Each section has its own gems, but all demonstrate the undeniable link between poetry and music.

Some poems use onomatopoeia to convey the sound of jazz:
"go husha-husha-hush with the slipper sand-paper"
- "Jazz Fantasia," Carl Sandburg
"Plink plank plunk a plunk
Plink plank plunk a plunk
- "Jazz Band," Frank Marshall Davis
Other poems apply a subtler approach, creating rhythms from the form itself. In "Bringing Jazz" by Maxwell Bodenheim, an author's note at the top of the poem informs us that readers should speak the odd-numbered lines slowly and the even-numbered ones quickly. Here are the first four lines of the poem, to give you an idea:
"Last night I had an oboe dream
Whistlers in a box-car madness bringing jazz.
Their faces stormed in a hobo-gleam,
Blinding all the grinding wheels and singing jazz."
In "Jazz is My Religion" by Ted Joans, the irregularities in punctuation/spacing/letter case echo the improvisational nature of the dance itself, the range of dynamics, the changes in tempo, and so on.

But jazz poems are not exclusively about the music itself. In the introduction to the collection, Kevin Young writes that jazz, apart from inspiring experiment, has "just as often inspired elegy" in poetry. Indeed, numerous poems are written as tributes to jazz musicians. The whole last section of the collection, Muting, consists of poems written for Billie Holiday. One of the pieces I found mot memorable, Lawson Fusao Inada's "Listening Images," pairs composers' names with a couplet:

Acorns on the roof -
Syncopated oakestra


Sunrise golden
At the throat"
The poems in this collection also reflect the historical roots of jazz and its musicians (indeed, Lindy Hop originated from the folk dance created by African slaves). Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," for instance, is a poem about racism that was later turned into a song and made famous by Billie Holiday.

And, like jazz, many poems in this collection are bold and unapologetic:

In the last few lines of AM/TRAK, an elegy written for John Coltrane, Amiri Baraka tells us to:
" Live!
& organize
yr shit
as rightly
Baraka's performance of the poem, which you can watch here, also demonstrates the necessity and beauty of performing jazz poems.

As Jazz Poems delightfully and poignantly demonstrates, music is poetry. The rhythms, rhymes, and words that are inherent in both forms create a pulse that inspires dance and song.

So, "Go to it, O Jazzmen!"

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The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carson McCullers's The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a tragedy told through the lives of five main characters who are ultimately unable to overcome the condition that afflicts them all, loneliness, in a Southern town polluted with racial inequality, poverty, and the disseminating promises of the American Dream.

Without spoiling too much...
Biff Brannon, who runs the café that is the main setting of the novel, struggles with not only defining the nature of his feelings for young Mick Kelly after he becomes a widow, but also his own gender and sexuality. Mick, who is the novel's protagonist and dreams of becoming a conductor one day, must pursue her ambitions alone in the aftermath of a turbulent adolescence and lost friendship. Dr. Copeland is too intellectual for his own good and is unable to rally allies who can understand his views on civil rights, while Jake Boult's plans for violent revolt destine him for isolation. Even John Singer, the deaf-mute who is a "home-made God" to characters like Jake and Mick, cannot escape loneliness. Despite the frequent visits that others pay him, Singer remains lonely due to his separation from his long-time and dangerously obese friend, Antonapoulos, for whom he never ceases to feel an intense (and absurdly deferential) attachment. All these characters, who differ in race and status, are linked in more ways than it may appear at first glance .

Indeed, some kind of disability also afflicts them all. Apart from the fact that a blind/deaf/mute character is always bound to be symbolic, the ideal of disadvantage is particularly important to this novel, which focuses on characters that are unfavored due to reasons that range from class to skin color. Singer and Antonapoulos are both deaf, Biff has "a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples," Blount gave people the impression that "something was deformed about him," and even the seemingly picture-perfect Baby does not make it out of the novel unscathed (her fate is a harsh reminder that her mother's dream for her child to be in the movies is but a fantasy).

Reading the novel, I was fascinated by the way characters depend on Singer through divulging their feelings to him and considering his stoic silence an anchor of security. Somehow, through his soundless responses, Singer becomes whatever people want him to be (which makes his 'real' life all the more intriguing by comparison, for he himself is ironically and disastrously dependent on Antonapoulos). McCullers captures the core of the desperation in such dependence best as she writes,
"Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” 
"... in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons--throw it to some human being or some human idea."
And such longing/relinquishment of everything personal highlights the need for escape and self-validation in an era and environment of helplessness.

Terrible deaths happen in this novel due to illness, murder, and suicide; love is often unreciprocated; mutual understanding is cripplingly difficult. Perhaps Mick's ending can be interpreted as hopeful as she still aims to pursue music, but I was definitely struck by a sense of defeat at the end of the novel. It's the kind of book I think I would teach in a classroom - there's so much in it that is worth writing about.

I'm utterly blown away that Carson McCullers published this novel when she was only 23; with its complex characters and intricate structure (fun fact: the book was split into three parts to imitate a fugue), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a work that lives up to its name.

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