Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Hoaxes


Hoaxes
Hoaxes by Curtis Daniel MacDougall

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



I picked up a beaten up copy of this for a few pesos at Under the Volcano Books, an English language book store in Mexico City and I've slowly been dipping into it ever since. It's the kind of book you can gobble up quickly or just taste every once and awhile, I think it's even readable out of order. But having traveled with me through Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and Northern Peru, the poor old paperback has nearly disintegrated. They wouldn't accept it when I tried to exchange it for a Flann O'Brien book at Cafe Fuisones in Chachapoyas, Peru, saying it would make their library look too ugly.

Anyway, the book is a remarkably fun survey of hoaxes throughout history. Because it was published in the 40s and revised in the 50s, it tends focus on the early 20th century and for me it was particularly enjoyable to read about hoaxes of this period from the perspective of the early 21st century. It also has some great overlaps with Banvard's Folly by Tom Collins, another favorite of mine from this subgenre of nonfiction. And of course Orson Welles and many other familiar personages make cameos alongside a lot of more obscure folks who I intend to learn more about now that I have their names. Some of my favorite characters and titles to appear in here: the Fortsas Catalog; Spectra: A Book of Poetic Exposures by Anne Knish and Emanual Morgan aka Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner; Biographical Memoirs of Historical Painters by William Beckford; Memoirs of Li Hung Chang by William Francis Mannix; The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Boothe by Finis Bates, Gaston Means and his hoax biography of President Harding (Means was recently immortalized by the always wonderful Stephen Root in HBO's Boardwalk Empire); the trickster Etienne Leon aka Baron de Lamothe-Lagon; the eccentric Philip Yorke aka Lord Hardwick, the 'disumbrationist' Paul Jordan Smith; Allan Bradley, the Giant of Hedgehog Harbor; Sir John Hill, physick and male midwife; regular appearance of names like Williston Fish, Fairfax Downey, Clemente Giglio that amuse even devoid of context.

From a more critical standpoint, I'll say the book functions more like a laundry list of hoaxes than the author seems to have intended. The book is split in two halves - the first attempts to explain why we fall for hoaxes, and the second intends to show how they succeed. Both rely on voluminous examples, but the first half includes a lot more clear analysis of things like the different kinds of incentives that drive people to fall for hoaxes. The second half contains numerous amusing examples of hoaxes and accompanying trivia organized by topic, but there is little analytical work to elucidate 'how they succeed,' and in fact I have a difficult time recalling what this half set out to do even though I read through it far more recently than the first half. At least the final chapter is a little more purposeful in how it shows the ways hoaxes spread and survive debunking.

The other quasi-problem with the book is how it plays fast and loose with the definition of a hoax. At the beginning it defines a hoax quite generally as a deliberately concocted untruth accepted by some segment of the population. The problem is that this definition seems to include a whole lot of myths, legends, scams and other forms of lying or storytelling that may dilute the unique character of a hoax. The author plays lip service at times to unraveling the distinctions between some of these sub-types of lies or fictions, but mostly misses out on settling out the differences, preferring the cast a wide net for his laundry list, to the extent that he even includes a lot of items that don't fit his definition in that they weren't 'deliberately concocted.' Though I'll say after reading the book it's pretty clear a hoax doesn't have to be deliberately concocted to cause a great deal of mistaken beliefs.

But these criticism matter little if you're looking for a lot of entertainment and laughter and/or for a simple survey that might point you in many useful directions for deeper exploration of the subject at either the primary or secondary level of sources.



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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review: The General in His Labyrinth


The General in His Labyrinth
The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

My rating: 0 of 5 stars



This novel reads like an extended Bill Brasky sketch. Like can you believe what a wild man bad ass Simón Bolívar was? “One time Bolívar slept the whole ride to Peru while sitting upright on a horse, and when he got there he conquered everything and they were so grateful they crowned him emperor and asked him to make love to the most beautiful young maiden in all the land!” Okay, that´s not a direct quote, but it´s close. Márquez is ostensibly writing about the final months of Bolívar´s life, yet that often feels like a pretext to roil up the mists of the man´s legend with frequent flashbacks to earlier moments of infamy. To make another reference to Tim Meadows, it occasionally feels like that moment near the beginning of the movie Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story - “You're gonna have to give him a moment, son. Simón Bolívar needs to think about his entire life before he dies.”

To make a long story short, the book is plenty amusing and often quite beautiful but it leans pretty heavily on old fashioned ideas about Great Men in History. And while Márquez´s description of a man who lived hard (can´t resist) decaying, deteriorating, and dying while still fairly young held my interest, it´s nowhere near as captivating as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, even if the translation is a lot better here.



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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wikipedia Pages I Have Created

Sometimes I make Wikipedia articles. Usually I just write a few lines, and then other people who I don't even know will add stuff to make the articles better. Here are the Wikipedia articles I have made:

Hob Broun - Novelist who wrote his last two books by blowing air through a tube
Elspeth Davie - Writer and wife of philosopher George Elder Davie
Rafael Bernal - Mexican Crime Novelist
At Night We Walk in Circles - Novel by Daniel Alarcón
Megan Ellison - Film producer & daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison
Carole Shammas - Historian & mother of musician Julia Holter
Change Nothing - Documentary about French Singer
Woes of the True Policeman - Novel by Roberto Bolaño
We the Animals - Novel by Justin Torres
Barravento - Directorial debut of Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha
Wainy Days - Absurdist Web Series
Tim and Eric Nite Live! - Surreal Talk Show Web Series
ChronoZoom - Interactive Timeline
Generativity - Concept from philosophy and technology
Leftover Cuties - Los Angeles-based Indie Pop band
Hung at Heart - Album by the Leftover Cuties
Eric André - Comedian & host of Adult Swim's "The Eric Andre Show"
Nicolás Pereda - Mexican Filmmaker
Where Are Their Stories? - Directorial debut of Nicolas Pereda
Emperor Penguin - Chicago-based Electronic Music Duo

Friday, December 20, 2013

Life Would Be a Goon, Sweetheart


A Visit from the Goon Squad
A Visit from the Goon Squad recalls the intricately interconnected sprawl of Cloud Atlas and Infinite Jest, but presented in miniature, as if those literary metropoles were reconfigured in order to be contained in a single city block. In fact, the Jules Jones interview/nervous breakdown chapter feels like a direct parody of or homage to David Foster Wallace's writing style, and the way characters and situations are nested recurrently throughout the distinctly different narratives and styles of each chapter owes a lot to Cloud Atlas.

Yet I don't mean to belabor the point regarding its influences - this is very much its own book and in its finest moments it achieves the sort of lyrical transcendence one associates with masterpieces. It's also a breeze to read, which I think belies its real complexities to a significant degree.

One could quibble with the neatness of the interconnections of Egan's characters, settings and stories. Many writers suggest that coincidences should only create problems in the narrative, not solve them, as solving by way of coincidence amounts to a kind of displeasing storytelling laziness akin to the dreaded deus ex machina. Egan could be accused of partially violating this principle. Her coincidences don't necessarily solve 'narrative problems' per se, but they do serve as a sort of textual suture that draws together the threads of her book into a novelistic whole.

But there's something magical about a well-executed circular narrative that excuses or even erases a lot of what would be considered flaws otherwise. The matryoshka storytelling of a Cloud Atlas, a Goon Squad, or a One Thousand and One Nights (their spiritual forebear), discards the facsimile of worldly logic and literal truth associated with traditional linear narratives, and in its place constructs a sort of dream logic and metaphorical truth that seems more like the real thing.

That real thing being life, the universe, and everything - of course!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Problems with The Lion King Presented in the Popular Listicle Format with Visual Aids for Illiterates (Who Make Up the Main Audience for The Lion King)

You know that song that goes in the jungle the mighty jungle the lions sleeps tonight well that's not even accurate the lion doesn't sleep in the jungle he doesn't even live in the jungle the jungle is for jaguars and leopards you idiots!

And that isn't even my main problem with Disney's 1994 animated musical, The Lion King. For starters, I don't think the so-called 'circle of life' necessarily has to involve your uncle killing your own father and stealing your birthright. So that's misleading.

2. Hakuna Matata does not mean "no worries for the rest of your days." It means "no worries" as in "no problem," or "no big deal." There's a world of difference that in all its irrevocable frivolity The Lion King glosses over entirely. It's like they didn't have Wikipedia in those days or something.

Swahili speakers all over the world find The Lion King insulting.
3. There's no such thing as a 'problem-free philosophy.' Read some Foucault, guys.
This may or may not be a photograph of Michel Foucault.
4. A wild boar would never in a million years end up as best friends with a meerkat. That's just unrealistic.
Wild boars eat fucking cheetahs for breakfast, they do not hang out with meerkats ever.
5. Jonathan Taylor Thomas sure feels an awful lot like stunt casting twenty years later, doesn't he?
Who could guess that this little motherfucker would grow up to be an ugly, forgotten loser? Not Disney, that's for sure.
6. I'm guessing astronomy was not Mufasa's strongest subject in school. So maybe he shouldn't spend so much time filling his son's head with a pack of lies about outer space.
Those aren't 'kings' you self-centered asshole, they're super-hot globular clusters of hydrogen and helium and you mean nothing at all to them.
7. Female hyenas experience massive erections that cause their clits to grow large and hard. Somehow this didn't make it into the movie, despite the performance of the foul-mouthed Whoopi Goldberg as one of the hyenas.
Whoop there's a clitoris
8. A total lack of Robin Williams. What were they thinking?
Nathan Lane may be many things, but he's no Robin Williams.
9. Naming the villain Scar is laying it on a little thick, guys.
Disney was proud of itself for not having Scar twirl his mustache because that counts as restraint with those hacks.
10. The whole thing is just a big rip off of Hamlet, with nearly all of the tragedy, madness, humor, and death cut out which is the stuff that makes Hamlet interesting to watch in the first place.
Shakespeare never had to steal his plots because he was a genius, unlike Jeffrey Katzenberg.
11. In short: Fuck The Lion King. The only thing it has going for it is that unlike The Emperor's New Groove, David Spade had nothing to do with it.
It could always be worse.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cocaine Decisions

Magnolia
1999. 188 minutes. USA. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Watchdate: 9/9/2012.
The problem with doing too much cocaine, as I understand it, is that it makes you think every idea you have is a good idea. Evidently, Magnolia amounts in large part to a parade of cocaine decisions. The opening sequence of the movie offers the tantalizing possibility of a masterful cinematic examination of the nature of coincidence, both hilarious and tragic in equal measure. With each moment that passes after this perfectly orchestrated opening, the movie grows ever more frantic, overwrought and slipshod, taking on the rhythm of Scorsese without his coherency, the scope of Kubrick or Altman without their poignancy, even the absurdity of Buñuel without his satiric edge. 

It's a great big mess of a movie and sometimes those work out really well, but a lot of other times they become exhausting to watch. For every excellent performance, from Julianne Moore's shrill drug addict to Tom Cruise's self-parodying machismo, there is a muddled spray of Paul Thomas Anderson's creepy daddy issues. And as a lover of the bizarre and outré in nearly every kind of narrative I can imagine, I am particularly outraged by the use of random singing and a rain of frogs to cover up for a lack of good ideas to draw the movie to a close. The random singing sequence in this movie is and will always be stupid as hell. The rain of frogs may have worked had the entire three hour running time not been made to rest on the event's shoulders, turning a potentially amusing idea into a shallow gimmick.

Cocaine may make every idea in your head seem great, but the thing about drugs is eventually you come down from the high and have to sort out the rare insight from the rest of the nonsense. This is a movie made by a cokehead, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Devil and the Tomcat (& Pontius Pilate & Yeshua Ha-Nozri)

The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov swings gracefully between the theatrical, the vulgar, the cartoonish, the caustically satiric, and even at times the profound and the sublime. I don't know how much of the satire I missed due to my relative unfamiliarity with the Soviet Union in the 1920s, though his attacks on the groveling and conforming literary establishment of the time are quite clear and wonderfully handled. I especially loved his satires of hustling for real estate. Behemoth the Tomcat is an indelible character - even if his supporting role in the book is smaller than you might imagine given his prominence on the covers of many editions of this book.

But the most thought provoking element of the book may be the novel-within-the-novel about Pontius Pilate. It functions simultaneously as a deep rupture from the main narrative, yet Bulgakov also successfully integrates it in myriad ways. Techniques associated with postmodernism stretch as far back as Cervantes, but this novel fascinates in how it feels both of its time and startlingly contemporary.

But most important of all, it's damn funny.

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