Friday, October 30, 2015

Not So Young Adult

The final installment of The Hunger Games is expected to fill movie theater seats starting a few weeks from today. While I don’t explore every pop culture phenomenon – there are too many and more than a few of them are off-putting anyway – this one to date has been relatively painless. So, in order to give it a closer look, a few days ago I picked up the trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins on which the movies are based. More on that in a moment.

It is hard to miss just how many recent movies have been based on Young Adult (YA) fiction. There is good reason. Teens are a prime movie demographic and YA is the one part of the fiction market that remains strong; if teens buy a book they’ll probably see the movie adaptation. The rest of the book market is suffering. Per capita sales of adult-oriented books – fiction in particular – continue the decline that began half a century ago. According to a Huffington Post survey, 42% of adult Americans didn’t read a single novel last year. 28% read no books of any kind and another 25% read between 1 and 5 – including such stuff as diet books. Since people notoriously lie to pollsters to make themselves seem more praiseworthy (we know from liquor taxes collected that they understate their alcohol consumption by 50% for example) it is likely the real figures are more dismal yet. Sales of novels aimed at “young adults” (tweens and teenagers), however, are not only holding their own but rising. So are modern teens avid readers? Not exactly. They remain a healthy market, to be sure, but the increase in sales comes from older readers: 55% of YA book readers are not “young adults” but actual adults. So, have adults not only cut back on their reading but dumbed down their selections? Fortunately no, because YA novels are not what they used to be.

Up until the 1960s the category usually was called “Juvenile Fiction,” but that was when “juvenile” was a word that still had an edge to it.  “Juvenile delinquent” in the 1950s evoked a scary image of a 17-y.o. mugger or gang member. By the mid-60s the term had softened enough to evoke a 10-y.o. toilet-papering a neighbor’s bushes. Teens, accordingly, disdained “juvenile” and the publishing industry obliged by adopting the more flattering “young adult” label. Whatever you call it, it has a long pedigree that includes the Nancy Drew mysteries of the 1930s and Robert Heinlein’s scifi novels of the 1950s. Even early on, a few examples were recognized as quality-lit, e.g. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and for that matter Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But these were the exceptions.  In general novels in the category were widely regarded by adults as kids’ stuff, and few people past high school bothered with them. This changed in the 90s, and Harry Potter had a lot to do with it. Critics and adult readers took notice that some of the most imaginative and remarkable stories being published were YA. To be sure, much in the category, such as the Twilight series, remains unreadable for many past the age of 18, but the best material is very good indeed. Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Libba Bray’s satirical Beauty Queens, F. Paul Wilson’s Jack trilogy, among others, all have literary merit.

What distinguishes YA from adult fiction? YA, naturally enough, has teen heroes and heroines – college-age 20-somethings at a stretch. The vocabulary and grammar tend to be clear, straightforward, and simple; if there is a semicolon anywhere in The Hunger Games I missed it. (Kurt Vonnegut, who in his novels had an idiosyncratic but simple style, groused that the only reason to use a semicolon is “to show you’ve been to college,” so I imagine he would have approved.) There are plenty of hormones, but the sex is usually (in movie terms) PG-13. There are some examples of R though. The hero/heroine faces some challenge and typically there is some oppressive authority to be overcome with derring-do. Each individual novel tends to be short, though a full series can be lengthy. Most importantly, the novels deal with the peculiar mindset of teens who are in the last stages of forming their adult selves. We’ve all been there. If we have any memory at all we all can relate. Besides, beginnings and endings are usually more interesting than middles, and endings tend to be depressing, so tales set in that age range retain a special appeal.

There is more to the adult appeal than just a peculiar kind of nostalgia, however. Adults always have envied teens their youth while being alarmed by their behavior. All of us still have a surly rebellious teenager inside. A tale in which that rebellion prevails remains satisfying on some level, and also a bit unsettling.

I don’t suggest that YA should dominate the reading lists of adults. I wouldn’t recommend anyone give up Fielding, Dostoevsky, Hemingway, or Nabokov. Authors who write for adults in adult prose are the heart of literature. But not all our recreational reading need be as deep as all that. One shouldn’t be embarrassed to include YA in the mix.

As for The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins deserves her success with this series. It is well-crafted, never loses sight of its teen viewpoint, and is cynical without being hopeless. I won’t recap the plot, which the movies follow pretty closely, but the political message is anti-authoritarian, which is a natural parallel to teen rebellion against adults. Before catching the last installment of the movie series, I recommend reading the novels; they definitely will enhance the experience.

My Chemical Romance: Teenagers

Friday, October 23, 2015

“O sweet and lovely wall, Show me thy chink”

“We build too many walls and not enough bridges” – Isaac Newton
“Something there is that doesn't love a wall” – Robert Frost
“As far as death is concerned, humans live in a city without walls” – Epicurus
“Wal-mart... do they like make walls there?” – Paris Hilton

The stucco on the retaining wall in back of my house succumbed to 40 years of NJ weather – particularly winter ice – and detached itself from the blocks beneath. As the stucco was embedded in steel mesh lath, it came off in a huge sheet of alarming weight and size. Once it was down I had to break it into manageable pieces with sledge hammer and wire cutter. I finished the re-stucco job yesterday (the dark patch is still wet in pic). The stones in the photo, plus others out of frame, are for a buttress or two like the ones already flanking the stairs; I plan to add them in order to help delay a repeat of the event.

Remains of Nineveh wall
People have been building walls for about as long as they have been building anything. I don’t mean walls that hold up a roof. I mean exterior structures intended to keep something out, keep something in, or both. A brush kraal surrounding huts, for example, keeps wild animals out and domestic animals in…or at least it reduces the number of intrusions and escapes. My retaining wall keeps dirt out from where I don’t want it. Far more often, though, walls are there to block people. People being what they are, as soon as any of us acquires something worth having, others will want to take it away. Walls are the first line of defense, whether of a private estate or a whole community. The earliest cities in Mesopotamia had them. By the time of Assyria’s ascendency many were truly formidable. Nineveh had a 6 meter (20’) high stone wall topped and backed by a 10 meter (33’) high and 15 meter (49’) thick mud brick wall. Much of the wall, especially the stone, survived 2700 years until it encountered modern explosives: anti-government forces currently occupying the site in Iraq intentionally blew up large parts of the wall earlier this year. [Shameless self-promotion: Dressed to the Nineveh, one of my short stories, is set in ancient Assyria.] Some walls protected whole territories, most notably China’s Great Wall and the much shorter but still impressive Hadrian’s Wall.

In an older blog Ghosts of Dwellings Past I wondered how private permanent homes affected the relationship of individuals and their immediate families to the community. How were sensibilities altered by private space? A similar question applies at a more social level to a town wall, for all the while a wall keeps others out it very much keeps the insiders in – even if, in principle, they are free to walk out the gate. It causes the insiders to pile atop one another more tightly than they otherwise would, it requires them to make arrangements for basic services (above all, water and sanitation), and it requires public arrangements for settling disputes. It requires a polity. This is so even at the level of a few houses in a kraal but is emphatically at the level of a town or city. How much did walls promote a sense of community early in history and prehistory? How did they shape civilization? Perhaps they were every bit as important as the agricultural revolution on account of how they affected the minds of the people within them.

It may seem that we no longer bother as much with walls, but we do. Modern firepower diminished the effectiveness of walls as defenses against armies, so we don’t use them as much for that purpose, but they still have a function against the less well-armed. For 28 years the Berlin Wall did the job for which it was designed: not perfectly (some 5000 made it through, over, or under) but it didn’t have to be perfect to be fundamentally effective. So too with prison walls. Walls to stem immigration at the borders exist, are planned, or are subjects for debate in various countries including the US. Do good fences make good neighbors? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But they aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

My wall, meantime, has no role in holding back outside hordes, armed or unarmed. It holds back dirt. In this it ultimately will fail. But I trust that after my repairs the failure will be long after I’m gone

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Time Warps on Cloud Nine

The people of every age regard their own era as a hotbed of vice. They are always right. Every place and time has its own sexual taboos and requirements: a prevailing list of what one must or mustn’t do or say with whom and how. The modern Western world is rife with them, including much under the heading of PC. Nor need the “prevailing” list be the same as the traditional one: what we regard as traditional mores haven’t prevailed in the West for a long time. There always are people who voluntarily violate them: people who are unwilling or unable to be constrained, pigeon-holed, or compliant. They are the coals in the always glowing hotbed of vice. That is not to say there is no fundamental difference between time periods. Laws, openness, and flavor vary enormously; what is celebrated in one era might be hidden or outlawed in another. Sometimes in the same time and culture a few miles make a difference: age of consent laws vary state by state in the US for example, so teenagers in love might be just a happy couple in one state but criminals over the border. Nonetheless, hidden or open, the same range of behaviors exists everywhere. The word “range” is important at an individual as well as a social level. At a time when so many people seem intent on narrowly categorizing themselves, it’s worth remembering that on the classic 0-6 Kinsey scale of orientation very few people score a 0 or 6 whether or not they choose to acknowledge or act on their mixed attractions.

It is hard to find more contrasting lists than at the bookends of the century between 1879 and 1979. For those not old enough to remember the 1970s – trust me on this one – the zeitgeist was much more open than today. (I’m speaking of atmosphere: a number of laws, I acknowledge, lagged behind.) Playwright Caryl Churchill caught the transition perfectly in her play Cloud Nine, which I first saw at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Greenwich Village in 1981. [Side note: culturally “the 70s” slopped over into the chronological 80s for a couple years just as culturally “the 60s” stretched all the way to 1974 when hippies took off their headbands and put on disco shoes.] Act I is set in 1870s British Colonial Africa; Act II is in 1970s London.  Although a century has passed between acts, the characters in the first act reappear in the second aged only 25 years. This chronological disconnect is not just playwright’s whimsy: Victorian mores and ideals, while finding their fullest expression in the 19th century, really did last until the middle of the 20th. Most adults in the 1970s grew up heavily influenced by them, so the time bending is a neat device. Some of the roles were cast cross-gender, cross-age, and cross-race. Adultery, incest, pederasty, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and homosexuality are present in both ages, but guiltily covered up in the first act while openly practiced in the second. Yet, love is no easier for the characters in Act II than in Act I. They are just as confused about what they want as ever. Victoria’s feminist husband Martin in Act II for all his pandering (or rather on account of it) is every bit as annoying as Betty’s patriarchal Clive in Act I.

The Atlantic Theater Company currently has an off-Broadway revival at the Linda Gross Theater on 20th Street. I was uncertain how well the play would hold up after 34 years. The answer was it holds up beautifully, even with the circle-in-the-round bench seating that is clever but a tad uncomfortable for 2 hours and 40 minutes. Cloud Nine has not lost its edge; the times if anything have honed it. One quaint feature is refreshing: the play is not polemical in 21st century fashion. Even when in the second act Lin says she hates men it’s plainly just a personal thing and not entirely true: she finds herself in a threesome with Victoria and her brother. The script even pokes gentle fun at the bookish Victoria for theorizing that sex cannot be separated from economics.

We’re all complex in these matters and either embrace the confusion or set boundaries for ourselves in order to simplify life – even if this involves some self-oppression. All too often we don’t resist the temptation to try to set the same boundaries for others. It works about as well as Prohibition did for alcohol.

If you get a chance to see Caryl Churchill’s play, which crops up here and there, I recommend it. Be quick about it though, for it rarely stays for long. The NYC production runs through November 1 after a planned run of only two months.

Trailer for a production at the Almeida Theatre in north London

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Plei-ing One’s Trade

Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery in "Three Ages"

Book notes: Past and future people.

Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Evolutionary psychologists rely on the Savanna Principle, which states that “our hominid ancestors spent 99.9 percent of their evolutionary history as hunter gatherers” and that “the basic functioning of the brain has not changed much in the last ten thousand years” (Alan S Miller/Satoshi Kanazawa). Our Pleistocene brains are not always well suited to postindustrial civilization. While there is plenty of blog material in that, on this occasion I’ll employ the principle just to explain the persistent appeal of a sub-genre of sci-fi: tales set in prehistoric times, sometimes dubbed paleo-fiction or plei-fi. (I’ve dabbled in them myself a couple of times: see Neander Valley Girl and Modern Times at my short story site.) Our brains are very suited to these stories, at least when they are well written. 

Nebula and Hugo award winner Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for his hard-sci-fi Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars & Blue Mars), writes very well. Some readers complained that his Mars books read too much like terraforming manuals, but most appreciated the results of his meticulous research, which didn’t completely overwhelm the human stories. In the case of Robinson’s plei-fi novel Shaman, his attention to detail is an unmitigated positive. We meet the central character Loon at age 12 on his “wander,” a rite of passage for an apprentice shaman, and soon are immersed in an ice-age world of clans, hunts, gathers, festivals, rituals, cave painting, pairings, and raids. It all feels so very much like “home.” The hopes, desires, and fears of the characters are completely relatable, as is the ultimate pathos of their human state that is with us still: the threat that death will extinguish not just us personally but our legacy.

A big Thumbs Up.


Hominid by John C. Boland

John C. Boland has written a taut little thriller, now available in paperback. Faced with the title Hominid, a reader might be forgiven for expecting another example of paleo-fiction. What the reader gets instead in a present-day setting is part murder mystery, part adventure, and part sci-fi. The science in the novel is pretty good. In present-day Maryland, archeologist David Isaac encounters his mentor and an old flame as he joins a dig on a remote Chesapeake Bay island on which there has been significant inbreeding for more than four centuries. They encounter evidence of speciation: a new hominid may be in town.

In truth, there isn’t much risk of a new species of human turning up unless one is deliberately engineered – something beyond our current capabilities but conceivable at some time in the future. As noted above, the past 10,000 years has not been long enough to alter the human species fundamentally. To be sure, superficial adaptations have cropped up here and there in that time span, e.g. adult lactose tolerance in Northern Europe and parts of Africa, high altitude resistance in the Himalayas, and somewhat smaller brains everywhere. (Domesticated people, like domesticated animals, generally are not as bright as their wild ancestors: See The Incredible Shrinking Brain.) Though bought at the expense of large past die-offs that favored minor adaptations, none of these traits were enough to indicate the beginnings of a new species anywhere. With an interconnected global population of 7 billion, splitting off a new branch of humanity is less likely than ever.

What are the conditions that would make speciation possible? In the deliberate improvement of farm animals, this is achieved by a mix of inbreeding and culling. Inbreeding emphasizes desired specific traits while culling reduces the negative consequences. Inbreeding harms a stock only without a cull. The same methods (accidentally achieved if at all, one hopes) will work for humans, and no place is better for a significant mutation to spread than in an isolated colony. It’s called the Founder Effect. The chances of creating a new species this way, while negligible, are not impossible, and Boland spins a good yarn out of the “not impossible.”

Another Thumbs Up, though personally I’m not much worried about speciation. We’ll have AI robots long before that happens. The robots can worry about it.

Jimmy Castor Bunch: Troglodyte (Cave Man) charted in 1972

Monday, October 5, 2015

Say Goodnight Gracie

Popular entertainment always has been with us, sometimes as state sponsored spectacle and always as a business, whether “legitimate” theater, traveling medicine shows, river boats, carnivals, or saloon hall performances. Modern mass pop entertainment culture, however, began to take shape in the latter half of the 19th century when communications and transport technology had advanced to the point that individual performers could be known and seen by large numbers of common folk separated by vast distances. Music halls and grandly named “opera houses” popped up in towns large and small along the railroad routes. A San Franciscan and New Yorker meeting for the first time easily could find they were fans of the same stars.

Vaudeville was at the heart of the change. Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914) usually is credited with molding the American version of vaudeville. He built the remarkably sumptuous Bijou Theater in Boston in 1883 and decreed that popular variety acts performed on its stage would be free of "vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action, and costume." This Victorian stuffiness was a master stroke, as it was again half a century later for Disney. Family friendly entertainment meant a mixed gender and mixed age audience at a time when a burgeoning middle class had money to spend. Other theater and opera house owners copied his strategy and found themselves with packed houses. By the end of the 1880s a national vaudeville circuit was in place. Performing troupes traveled city to city within the US and internationally, gathering fans as they went.

Why did vaudeville go into decline in the 20th century? The simplest answer is “the movies.” That’s not the whole of it, but the largest part. By 1920 movies offered grander spectacles and bigger stars at a cheaper price; the best performers soon deserted vaudeville for Hollywood with its bigger paychecks and vastly bigger audiences. Vaudeville’s response was to attempt to retain a portion of its audience by becoming less family friendly; many of the venues added strippers in the 1920s. (The 1968 flick The Night They Raided Minsky’s about this event is complete fiction, but it is enjoyable and Britt Ekland never looked better.) This helped slow the decline of ticket sales but it changed the format so much that vaudeville was no longer distinguishable from burlesque, so arguably it hastened the demise.

Among the legacies of the era are the halls and opera houses scattered around the country in which the vaudeville acts performed. These buildings often were sizable and fairly elaborate even in relatively small towns. Many still exist and have found new life refurbished as concert halls. Built in 1882, the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, (Mauch Chunk was the name of the town before 1953) is a typical example. A century ago it hosted famed acts and performers of the day including Al Jolsen, Mae West, and John Philip Sousa. In 1927 it became a movie house. The Mauch Chunk Historical Society acquired the property in the 1970s and began a restoration. Today the site hosts a range of rock, jazz, and folk artists.

I was at the Mauch Chunk Opera House last Friday with a friend (Hi, Ken) to see the Canadian contemporary folk duo Dala (Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine) whose performance we had caught a few years ago in Morristown, NJ. They play and sing mostly their own material, but mix in a few covers, Arlo Guthrie’s Coming into Los Angeles for one. “They are charming, clever, and talented.” I’m quoting myself from 2011. If you get a chance, give them a try.

In an era when so much of our entertainment is in our own dens on our own electronic entertainment equipment, live music is still a rewarding alternative, and it seldom sounds better than within old vaudevillean walls.

Dala – Not Alone