Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Artist in Their Midst

Among the numerous competitions at the Olympics this year, the numerous success stories, failures, tragedies, high points, and low points, one event caught my eye more than any other.  If one can consider one event to sum up the entire Olympic experience, to be the focal point of the games, at least for us here in the U.S., it is the Women's Figure Skating Competition.

On the men's side, I witnessed some amazing skating, but that event, while focusing on fancy footwork, has become a jumping contest.  Who can jump higher, spin faster, and spin more.  On the women's side there's some of that, too, as Mao Asada became the first female to land a triple axel (three of them) in competition.  Still, there's less of that than there is on the men's side, and while her accomplishment is a tremendous one and contributed to a great night of skating, it was eclipsed by a more powerful and visual one: that of an artist of the ice.

We artists can recognize each other from those people who are merely good at what they do, for we bring beauty to the world.  That is our only goal. We do it by showing what the world is and can be, the possibilities and the proof.

Art need not be utilitarian, or pragmatic.  Real art has no reason for being.  As Lev Lunts, the Russian author, proclaimed, "It exists because it must exist."

Kim Yu-Na, or Queen Na, won the women's competition because she is an artist of the ice.  Everything she did during those two nights of competition looked effortless and graceful.  Her emotional range reminded me of Oksana Baiul's, except that she is a better skater than the Ukrainian wonder, and she connected with me on a much deeper emotional level.  Her jumps were effortless, her spins beautiful, her footwork carefree, her artistry stellar.

Showing off one's artistry on the ice, of course, is easier to do when skating without judges, and without a set number of essential elements dictating which jumps, twirls, and footwork must be included in the program.  Her artistry, therefore, was best displayed last night, in the Champions Gala, when she skated for herself, for her fans, and for those who love the sport of figure skating, and its ice princesses.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Greg Sings the Blues (and Its Praises)

Sometimes things happen for a reason.  Sometimes they just happen.  Whether they bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye, they often catch you unawares, with some of the happiest moments occurring after some of the saddest, some of the most fulfilling moments after the most disappointing.

Such was the case Tuesday for me.  Having come to the end of my probationary period with an NGO (non-governmental organization, for those of you who talk like humans), I had failed to meet my goal of signing up one child sponsor a day.  So, as my thirtieth hour on the street melded into my lunch hour, I was, "let go."  Sounds much better that saying I was fired, canned, or kicked to the curb.  Much better than saying that I failed.

But luckily, failure of this sort is temporary, unless one decides to make it permanent.  I never have.  If I did, I could not wish to have a writing career.  You get to cross the moat of "no" as a writer only after you have enough rejection letters to cover the moat.  This post, however, is neither about failure nor about rejection.  It is, instead, about a movie that includes both, but is, in itself, a triumph.

I wrote about Sita Sings the Blues in regards to copyright law several months back, but I never officially reviewed the movie.  Indeed, I'm not sure that this will be an actual review, either, but more my sharing the experience of seeing this movie in an actual movie theater, with an actual audience, to those of you who read my blog on a weekly, or semi-weekly, or just this one post-ly, basis.

Those who have been fortunate enough to see this wonderful film know that it's a visual feast for the eyes (cliched, but true), which increased my excitement over seeing it in a theater, as opposed to on a computer screen.  Also, the sound system would be much better in a theater than the speaker system I heard it on back in Connecticut.

The main reason I was excited to see this film though, was in the knowledge that very few people would get to experience what I was about to experience.  Current copyright law prevents Sita Sings the Blues from obtaining even a limited two-week run in theaters, so you have to catch it when it appears.  I saw it at a one night showing at Metro Cinemas in the U-District in Seattle (Metro Cinemas is part of the Landmark Theatres chain, which should be applauded for allowing this film to be shown.  Kudos should also go to Scarecrow video, which helped sponsor the event, and to the two guys who show a classic movie there every Wednesday--this being the newest movie they've ever shown).

Because I have seen this movie twice before, during this viewing I could focus more intently on the visuals and on how the three elements (Nina's story, the Ramayana, and the song numbers) intertwine and complement each other.  In fact, the songs sounded even more appropriate to the story, not just to what was happening at the time in the Ramayana, but also what was happening in Nina's love life.  Even better, I didn't have to wait for a new section of the movie to load after ten minutes (ala youtube).

Nina Paley, the director/animator/creative guru behind Sita Sings the Blues, uses several distinct styles of 2-D animation to create a visually alive and beautiful movie.  Some parts of the film look like paintings one might find in Indian art galleries.  The "real life" sequences include squiggly lines and photo cutouts.  The song sequences include more rounded and shapely characters.  And then there are other styles that are hard to define, like the opening flower explosion sequence, or the dance sequence after Nina's primordial scream.

Even better, the more I see this film, the more layers I uncover.  And the fact that she tells these stories with wit and humor--and, near the end, pathos--only adds to the fun factor (even including one of the best recurring bits in the movie, which involves detailed shadow puppets trying to remember how the story in the Ramayana goes and the names of the characters involved).

There is an intermission sequence in this movie, so I waited to see if anyone would leave the theater during the sequence.  No one did, but I did sense confusion at first from some of the audience members (since the lights weren't coming on), which I thought was fantastic.  Even better was that I couldn't be sure if all of the voices I heard during this sequence were coming from the movie or from people in the theater.  Now that's an effect one could not get at home.

The best part of the experience was yet to come.  When the credits started rolling, only one guy left his seat--and he was in charge of the next showing.  No one else left their seat.  No one talked.  No one moved.  Until, the credits ended.  Then, everyone got up, starting fussing with their coats, began talking amongst themselves, and headed out into the night.  The only comparable experience I've had is when I went to see the movie Shine in a small, packed theater.  For that movie, people didn't move because they were emotionally stunned at what they had just seen.  For this movie, people didn't move because they wanted to enjoy the film to its end.  Also, the soundtrack (in addition to the songs by Annette Hanshaw) is gorgeous.

Like Shine and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, this is one movie-going experience that I shall remember for a long, long time.

To see Sita Sings the Blues, go to:  (information on this website includes how you can screen the movie yourself)

Standard Edition DVD
This image is from the standard DVD version of Sita Sings the Blues, which can be purchased here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Effortful Writing

Sometimes I try too hard when I write.  I read other comments on blogs and try to be as witty as them, or as poignant, or as observant, and end up sounding, instead, like I'm full of it.  The arts are strange in that, if you can see the effort involved in a completed piece, whether it be a painting, or a symphony, or a novel, it loses its desired effect.  The last movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 sounds effortless, but how difficult it would be for someone not of Mozart's stature to have written that!  Same goes for the complicated harmonies and mixture of notes in Tristan und Isolde, but when played together, they sound as if they all belong.  The familiar mixed with the new; inevitability mixed with surprise.  The greatest works know how to mix these elements together into a complete and awesome whole.  For the rest, you can see the patches, but not the quilt.

Now, of course, much effort goes into sounding effortless, but if you force the words when writing, they refuse to do your bidding.  The words, the sentences, must flow naturally from the pen, from the keyboard.  If they do not, they sound like a child banging keys on a piano, instead of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata.

I've also noticed another trend that worries me: I always respond to other people's life stories with stories of my own.  It's how I relate to others, and it's not unusual, but it makes me sound as if I am wresting away attention from them and placing it on me, rather than emphasizing their unique experiences.  I read those comments of mine and wince.  And, somehow, their experiences always seem to relate to some experience I had in Japan (more in conversations than in writing, but it does happen in writing, as well).  Well, it was my last great adventure, it continues to have a powerful impact on my life, and it didn't happen that long ago.  Still, I feel sometimes as if I alienate people when I compare their everyday existence to something that happened to me on the other side of the world--as if I can't relate their day-to-day experiences to my own.

Writing is transparent; it often reveals things that even the author wants to stay hidden.  Having read my London diary entries recently (in their entirety), I noticed how often I wrote down that I tried to get a picture with other people.  How needy I sound in those entries!  Am I needy still?  Is that what continues to plague me in my comments--a need for everyone to notice me, to appreciate me, to want to be seen with me?  I don't know.

Flannery O'Connor once wrote (or said), "I write to discover what I know."  I would add that I also write to discover who I am.  In fact, this blog is nothing more or less than my thinking aloud.  Sometimes my thoughts are complete, and can be read with clarity.  Other times they are half-formed, and fumble around in the dark, looking for the light.  Whether in embryonic form or in mature form, however, my thoughts are always searching, searching, for what lies beyond my comprehension, what lies within, and how to make everything I come across look as effortless as breathing.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I hate abridged books.  To clarify, I am not talking about reference books, where an abridgement allows me to purchase a version of the Oxford English Dictionary that won't break my book shelf or my piggy bank.  Nor am I referring to excerpts found in anthologies.  Excerpts are fine.  They are meant to give a reader a taste of the whole.  Abridged books, however, masquerade as being the real thing, while stripping away the lifeblood of the original creations.

Certain formats, of course, call for abridgments, such as audio books or movies adapted from books.  But to abridge books themselves, when one can take the story in as small or as large chunks as one wishes, spread out over a period of days, weeks, months, and even years?  Blasphemy!  Why would you buy the abridged version of Anna Karenina when you can buy the complete version, one in which the pacing isn't hacked to pieces by an "editor's" whims?  For the same reason, I hate listening to cut versions of operas, but there, at least, the artists were present when the cuts were introduced, and nowadays, the only cut operas are ones in which 1.) the singer would die if he or she had to sing the complete part live, or 2.) the recordings are from a time when cuts were considered acceptable (or recording technology or historical considerations prevented a complete recording from being made).  Plus, with recordings, at least, one would gladly take a cut La Traviata in order to hear Maria Callas sing Violetta, or a cut version of Tristan und Isolde to hear Lauritz Melchior sing the role of Tristan, since neither singer recorded those roles in complete, uncut versions of their respective operas.  And, in fact, one could supplement those versions with newer, complete recorded versions of those operas, with different singers and better sound quality.

With abridged books, on the other hand, they continue to be published, due to a wrong-headed idea that butchered versions of the classics makes them more "accessible" to a wider audience.  In addition, you gain nothing that you wouldn't gain in an unabridged book.  In many cases, you gain far less.  Case in point: in high school, my class read an abridged version of Les Miserables that ran less than 400 pages long.  The uncut version runs at about 1200 pages, meaning that roughly 800 pages were cut from the book.  So, the "necessary" parts of Les Mis run to half the size of the "unnecessary parts?"  In addition, when I read the uncut version some years back, I discovered that the cut portions of the book were some of the best parts of the story.  For example, the description of the battle at Waterloo, the student revolts, a description of the Parisian sewers, and much of the detail that makes this such an enthralling, entrancing book.  Sure, there are weak stretches, but they are often followed by strong stretches (for example, the section before the student revolts drags a bit, but then we have the revolts and the building of the barricades), all missed by someone who only reads the abridged version, and would wonder afterwards why people consider Les Miserables to be such a great book.

Is it the length that scares people off?  These are the same people who are hooked on Lost and 24.  Watching those shows year after year takes up much more time that reading War and Peace would.  "Dumbing down the classics" does nothing to spread their appeal to people who are scared away by the more complete, better versions of these tales, and--in my opinion--continues to fuel this illogical idea that the classics need to be fiddled with in order for "modern" audiences to appreciate them.  Isn't that a slap in the face to the editors and writers who originally worked on these books, and to the intelligence of modern audiences?  Are we saying that they are incompetent, or didn't do a good job when they originally published the books, or that we are incompetent, and are unable to read classic works in their entirety?  This is one area in which I can understand an author's desire to extend copyright (to read my opinion on current copyright laws, click here).  Who wants their work butchered by someone who thinks they can make it better by removing large chunks of the narrative, destroying the pacing, and cutting details that add to the mood of the tale?

As readers, we can do three things to stop this practice: 1.) not buy abridged books, 2.) find out which stores sell abridged books, and write letters (or email) to management telling them to stop, and 3.) find out which publishers support this practice, and tell them to stop.  I understand that long books cost more money to publish that short books, but if publishers in the 1800s and earlier weren't afraid to publish these long works of fiction uncut, than neither should we.  Nor should we be afraid to read them as the authors intended us to.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Favorite Authors: Leo Tolstoy

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
 --opening line to Anna Karenina, as translated by Joel Carmichael, Bantam Classic

I love Russian writers.  Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel, Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Pasternak, and--above all--Tolstoy.  And that's without tackling his greatest novel, War and Peace.  To think that after he wrote that masterpiece, he wrote another, Anna Karenina, followed by the wonderful novella "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," both of which I read and loved, despite Joel Carmichael--in the former--committing the unpardonable sin of "Americanizing" the last names.  To explain: Fyodor Dostoevsky's wife's last name would be Dostoevskaya in Russian, just as "Karenina" is the female form of "Karenin," her husband's last name.  Carmichael keeps "Karenina"--because who ever heard of a novel called Anna Karenin?--but uses only the masculine form of the last names in the novel when referring to other women.  So, for example, Stephen Oblonsky's wife is called Dolly Oblonsky, instead of Dolly Oblonskaya.  Not a huge sin, I admit, but just as annoying to me as when translators of Japanese add an unnecessary "the" before place names, which 1.) sounds stupid in English, and 2.) doesn't exist in Japanese.

But I digress.  So, why do I love Leo Tolstoy's writing so much?  Simple: he excels in every facet of writing.  Interesting characters?  Check.  Believable world?  Check.  Prose to die for?  Even in translation, you get the sense that he is a very good writer.  Humor and pathos?  Check.  Pacing?  Check (in fact, Part One of Anna Karenina is considered to be perfectly paced-you'll see what I mean when you read it).  Plus, he is able to tie multiple plot threads together in Anna Karenina (and, I've heard, to an even greater extent in War and Peace) without any of the threads becoming tangled or frayed along the way.

And the man knew so much.  In Anna Karenina, he writes not only about doomed love affairs, but also about great marriages.  Life in the city and life in the countryside.  Farming.  Politics.  Commoners.  Nobility.  All with a sense of thoroughly knowing his material, just as he thoroughly knows the characters in his books.  Rare is it to encounter an author whom one feels could write about anything and write about it with authority.  Tolstoy is that type of writer.  He is also one of the few writers to have belonged to the nobility, and to have been wealthy, while he wrote his best and most famous work.

One of the greatest writers to never have won a Nobel Prize (possibly THE greatest, but I have several more contenders to wade through before I make that assessment), the greatest thing about Tolstoy, especially for those people who look at the length of his novels in despair, is that they are such good reads.  This is not like an average person trying to read Ulysses, but more like an average person trying to read Charles Dickens.

And, for those of you who don't want to tackle such long novels, there's always "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."  But really, isn't that like not watching foreign films because you don't like reading subtitles?

Below is a list of Tolstoy's best known works.  I am not sure which translations of the novellas are considered the best, but I have added links to the two best reviewed translations of Tolstoy's masterpieces.  As for personal recommendations, I can only recommend Anna Karenina and "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" at the moment, because I have not read the other two.  I also wish to read the translation of Anna Karenina that I have linked to here, as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky keep the Russian names intact, and also strive to keep Tolstoy's writing style as intact as possible.  Plus, their translations of Gogol's short stories--which I did read--were quite good.

War and Peace (1865-69)
Anna Karenina (1877)
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1887)
"The Kreutzner Sonata" (1889)

Note: I have just discovered that this year is the centenary of Tolstoy's death, as it is with Twain's.  Tolstoy died on November 20, 1910.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Quick Note

Since I am a writer and humanist, the issues of free speech and human rights are very important to me, which is why you will notice a new addition to my sidebar.  February 11th is Victory of the Revolution Day in Iran, which celebrates "liberty, independence, and freedom," according to Amnesty International.  Ironically, the days leading up to that celebration may be marked with an increased crackdown on those felt responsible for the protests over last year's presidential election.  In addition, other dissidents may be executed.

For anyone who wishes to post this badge on their website, Facebook page, or Twitter account on that day (or earlier, as I have done), or wants to see other ways in which he or she can help, you can go to this website:

My next post will be launching a new feature on my blog, which I'm quite excited about, though it will involve much research on my part, and also involve a thorough searching of my memory banks.

Until then!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Land of the Fear

Note: I originally wrote most of this entry on November 30, 2009.  Not that it makes much difference. Most of the issues I describe in this post have not gone away.

Since September 11, 2001, Americans policy seems to be dictated out of fear.  The election of Barack Obama created a (too brief) respite to this situation, but now we are back to scaring the hell out of each other.  If we aren't tough with Iran, they'll attack us with nukes.  If we pass universal health care, our costs will all go up (never mind that the other option--to do nothing--would bankrupt us much more efficiently).  Climate change seems the only fear that's worth worrying about--and it's one of the few that most governments seemed unconcerned about, maybe because it's "far down the road."  Yeah, but if, while driving, you don't swerve to avoid an object far in advance, you're going to crash your car.

The biggest fear now seems to be jobs and retirement benefits.  Well, I'm more worried about what we're willing to sacrifice long-term for short-term gain in those categories.  Short-term benefits is what got us into this financial mess in the first place, probably because Congressmen and Senators aren't re-elected for future benefits of their legislation, but only on what it brings in the short-term.  And, of course, that is a result of looking at an elected position as a career move instead of as service to one's country.  Serve your country well, and whether you are reelected or not shouldn't matter.  What should matter is doing what's in the best interest of your constituents, and hoping that they are smart enough to recognize it.

And, of course, there is fear over health care.  And President Obama.  And socialism.  This fear has died down with the emergence of facts (thank you, newspapers, for remembering what your job is), or maybe the shrill voices in the room are taking a hiatus to get Sarah Palin's new book signed.  I would be interested to see what it says, provided that it wasn't written by a ghost writer, as writing style and word choice can reveal a lot about a person, if you know how to critically analyze it.  Ulysses S. Grant showed himself to be a decent and intelligent human being with his memoirs; Clinton showed himself to be long-winded with his.

But, I am getting off topic.

Most people know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear is...fear itself," in his first inaugural address, but how many know what he said after that?  He continued on that topic of fear as follows: "Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."  

Amazing how current that sentiment seems when listened to now, as are other parts of the speech.  Oh, and enough with trying to get things done in a bipartisan manner: most of the great advances in our society have come from one side of the political spectrum or the other.  Think the Radical Republicans and The New Deal Democrats.  The Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act.

Since writing the above, I have seen reports that Obama has gone on the offensive against Republicans, particularly in the Senate.  In his State of the Union Speech, he also sounded more fired up than he has been in past speeches.  Maybe someone told him to start taking after FDR.  Still, the one thing that can defeat him, and this nation, is fear.  Fear that the recovery is not happening fast enough.  Fear that this President can't deliver to us the jobs we need.  Fear that nothing will get better.

In the fable about the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise wins the race because it is "slow and steady."  As a whole, America seems to suffer from ADD.  Problems as large as the ones facing our nation today cannot be solved quickly.  Anything that looks like a quick fix is bound to fail in the long run.  What we should look at are the slow and steady steps being taken to get us out of this mess of an economy.  To get us out of two wars.  To make us competitive in the future.

We the people are this government, not our representatives in Congress.  Not our President.  Not our Supreme Court.  Ultimately, we are the ones given the awesome responsibility of running this nation through our representatives, not our representatives running this nation through us.  So, as citizens, how can we best serve this nation in these troubling times?  I mentioned FDR before.  Once he quantifies fear in his first inaugural address, he says the following:

"In every dark hour of our national light, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves, which is essential to victory.  And I am convinced that you will, again, give that support to leadership in these critical days. In such a spirit on my part and on yours, we face our common difficulties."

Notice Roosevelt didn't tell people to support the President, or Congress, or the courts.  He told them to " to leadership."  And so they did in 1933.  And so we must now.

Full text of Roosevelt First Inaugural Address: