Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sexual Politics in Mozart's Magic Flute?

In Mozart's The Magic Flute, creepy Nosferatu-lookalike Monostatos climbs into bed with the sleeping Pamina. Then he sings an aria saying, in effect, I'm not a bad guy, just ugly and horny as the next. (Photo: Robert Millard for LA Opera)
Georja and I just submitted our review of LA Opera's new production of The Magic Flute. Some of that review speaks particularly to symbolism of the male-female struggle in this mystical story:

Mozart’s opera itself is unusual enough – the story is a fantasy allegory about humankind’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. It’s a struggle of good contending with evil based on the ancient Egyptian themes that formed the basis of the secret society of Freemasons in Mozart’s day. Freemasons (the forebears of today’s Masonic Lodge) go through thirty-four degrees, or achievement steps, of ritual. The goal of this process is personal development, community service, and spiritual maturity. In Mozart’s story, the progression is summarized in three trials through which the main characters must pass – the trial of silence, the trial of temptation, and the trial of fire and water. It all seems pretty scary because they are told, if they fail, they will die.
Tamino (Lawrence Brownlee) is a well-intentioned young prince. At rise, he finds himself in a dark wood under attack by a fire-breathing dragon. He’s rescued as the Queen of the Night (Erika Miklosa) kills the dragon and dispatches three ladies (Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoe Velasco and Peabody Southwell) to take the prince under their care. But the bewildered Tamino thinks that it is the Queen’s servant Papageno (Rodion Pogossov), a bird-catcher, who has helped him, and together they resolve to make their way out of the dark wood. Along the way, Tamino falls in love with the Queen’s daughter Pamina (Janai Brugger), who has come under the control of the Queen’s archrival and priest of the sun Sarastro (Evan Boyer). The Queen wants Pamina, assisted by Tamino, to kill Sarastro.
All this would seem to be a fairly straightforward good-versus-evil story, right? Of course not. In the allegory, the roles of the characters of queen and dark priest are exactly reversed. The priest Sarastro (his darkness underscored by Boyer’s resonant bass) turns out to be the spiritual master of Freemasonry. The Queen is the proponent of blissful ignorance – she’d like nothing better than for humans to dwell with her in perpetual night. But Miklosa’s heavenly soprano, along with her dazzling white costume, have us thinking she’s the essence of good.
Tamino, Papageno, and Pamina all come under Sarastro’s control, as he is assisted by Monostatos (Rodell Rosel). Monostatos is another character whose stereotype leads us astray. Officially, his role is overseer of Sarastro’s temple. In the story, he’s prison guard to the three protagonists. In fact, despite his terrifying appearance, he explains in his aria at the opening of Act II that he is just an ugly guy doing his job who would like a little nookie. Such is Mozart’s wicked sense of humor, which underlies the story at every turn.
It is Sarastro who forces the three characters through the three trials. And he says they will “pay with their lives” if they fail to meet his standards. He’s so menacing, we fear he will destroy them no matter what. But here’s another reversal – there is no way to fail. In his trials, Tamino is made to confront death and seemingly to forsake his earthly love of Pamina. The wisdom of the trial is that death is an illusion, and there is nothing to fear. So if he failed (which he doesn’t) and he did indeed die, he would emerge in the same place – enlightened, and with Pamina at his side. Comic-relief sidekick Papageno also scores at the end, as Sarastro presents him with a soul-mate, the pretty and birdlike Papagena (Amanda Woodbury).
The stark good and evil roles, and the reversals, might make us think it’s all about men against women. Freemasonry was a society of prominent men, after all. Tamino and Pamina go through the trials together. The lesson of the fable – as Mozart tells it – is that men and women are partners and equals.
The concept of the production is rooted in the theater of German Expressionism, as practiced by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. The two-dimensional movie screen is what those artists would call an alienation effect. It’s done to distance the audience from their emotional reactions – and emphasize a story of ideas. And that’s just what Mozart intended – all with a sense of whimsy and wit that will have you smiling – not only about this delightful production – but also about what it’s like to be a silly human obsessed with needless fears and yet possessed with boundless hope.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Farnsworth's Revenge by Gerald Everett Jones

Farnsworth's Revenge

by Gerald Everett Jones

Giveaway ends December 17, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Someone Should Host the Boychik Lit Fest

Not sure what the point is here, but it appears the lady is getting the worst of it - and the men are, well, beasts. (Conference de Londre, Wikimedia)
I saw this New York Times article recently "Media Outlets Embrace Conferences as Profits Rise." I'm certainly glad that the mass media are finding ways to survive, but I hope it's not because all those unpaid blogging gigs are lowering their overhead expenses.

A conference I regularly attend is the annual Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) Bid and Proposal Con, which will be held next May in Chicago. I've submitted a presentation, and if I'm chosen to speak this will be my third year in a row. The first year I spoke, I was scheduled opposite a wildly popular panel - a debate between Millenials and Boomers about the roots of generational misunderstanding. Naturally, I wasn't there, and I was sorry I missed it. Second-hand reports told me it ended in something just short of a food fight.

The NYT article reports that traditionally male-centered Fortune magazine will be hosting its Most Powerful Women Summit. I wonder what the ratio of attendees will be, male, ahem, "over" female?

And then coming back to the point of this humble, disruptive blog - if anyone held a conference for authors and fans of boychik lit, would anybody show up? Perhaps Tucker Max and I could debate - his brash take-no-prisoners approach and my more mild-mannered curiosity - but if we're to generate any interest at all, we might need to stage that food fight.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Farnsworth's Revenge by Gerald Everett Jones

Farnsworth's Revenge

by Gerald Everett Jones

Giveaway ends December 17, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Farnsworth's Revenge - Advance Reading Copy Giveaway on Goodreads

The release date for the trade paperback of Farnsworth's Revenge seems so far away - April Fool's Day next year. The first of Rollo's misadventures, My Inflatable Friend, came out on the same date, 2007. But especially if you read that one and its sequel Rubber Babes, you'll want to know how the trilogy gets resolved (and it does, with a wrenching twist, of course).

The Goodreads contest ends the week before Christmas, and the twenty winners should have their books by New Year's. Winners are encouraged to write and post reviews, and inclusion of spoilers will be a matter of personal conscience.

"Seeing poor Rollo go splat, it hurts so good when I laugh," Tom Blake, Orange County Register.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Farnsworth's Revenge by Gerald Everett Jones

Farnsworth's Revenge

by Gerald Everett Jones

Giveaway ends December 17, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win
Farnsworth's Revenge has a fair amount of backstory, so you don't necessarily need to read the books in order. But then, if you're a binge watcher of Entourage or House of Cards, you'll want to begin at the beginning, with My Inflatable Friend, in which Rollo's outlandish schemes first take (bodily) form.

And then you'll be curious to know how Rollo manages to fail continually upward in Rubber Babes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Remembering F. D. Reeve (1928 - 2013)

Franklin Reeve (Photo: Christopher Reed Homepage)

I've dedicated Farnsworth's Revenge to F. D. Reeve, who was one of my most influential mentors as a writer. I've had a great many valuable teachers and counselors, and it's not like I spent so much time with him. But let me tell you what he taught me, and why I think it has made all the difference.

Frank was one of my professors in the College of Letters program at Wesleyan University. This interdisciplinary major is a three-year curriculum in literature, philosophy, and language. The teaching modes include colloquia (large group discussion sessions around a core reading list), seminars (smaller group meetings on specific topics), and individual tutorials. The program was ungraded. We had a battery of oral exams at the end of junior year, and then we had to defend a paper in senior year. For my paper, I wrote and directed a play, The Kepler Foundation, which has been performed exactly three times.
Frank was an active leader in the colloquia all three years I was in the program. And he was one of my tutors in my senior year.
He titled his tutorial course "Some Islands." The reading list included classic works, mostly fiction, with island themes - Huxley's Island, Stevenson's Treasure Island, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and quite a few others. The assignment was to read one of these books each week, then write a review. And here's the challenge - each review had to be written in the style of a particular literary journal or periodical. That is, you had to write the review as if you were a stringer for the magazine and had to "voice" your copy to suit the publication.
Now, in a traditional journalism course, I've since learned, the professor would probably drone on about the analytics of parsing sentences to determine rules of style. Count the words, count the clauses, count the syllables. For tenth-grade level, keep sentences under twenty words, no more than two clauses per sentence, no more than three syllables per word. The New York Times famously adheres to its own flavor of tenth-grade-level style. (It shouldn't come as a shock that USA Today writes to seventh grade.)
Problem was, Reeve told me none of this. I don't recall ever even having a conversation about what the elements of style are. (Yes, there's the highly regarded handbook, Elements of Style. We didn't talk about that either.)
I don't know how Reeve expected me and his handful of other students to get this knack. But I did, and without any attention to deliberate techniques or metrics of style. I could liken it to learning to play piano by ear. He simply directed my attention to the task. Playwrights and screenwriters talk about having an ear for dialogue. This skill is much the same, listening to the editorial voice of the publication.
In my most memorable session with Frank, we'd met in his office to go over my review of Robinson Crusoe, which I'd tried to do in the manner of Time magazine.
Reeve read through my two-page, double-spaced, typewritten review as I sat there facing him. He came upon the following sentence, and he literally gagged:
Defoe: Of course, my main worry was how to achieve verisimilitude. I wanted the reader to think these fanciful events actually happened.
Time: Very what?
My mentor said nothing, just stared at me with those steely blue eyes as his ruddy cheeks grew even redder. Without a word his look told me, "You're supposed to imitate this shit, not make fun of it."
Then we both laughed. I laughed so hard, my head flew back and hit the wall.
I haven't been the same since.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spying and Expectations of Privacy

German scientist with detective camera (Bain News Service/Flickr)

My friend Jim Anton and I were chatting on the phone the other day about all the scandals surrounding government spying. Jim is a scientist who had the fearlessness to teach high-school kids. Now, fortunately for the sake of his blood pressure, he's left the classroom and he and his wife Jean are publishing e-textbooks for exam prep. Jim's comment to me was, "Their having so much personal data really opens up the potential for blackmail." After I thought for a moment, I said, "Maybe not." There's a younger generation with a new set of values. If generalizations in the media can be believed (careful, there), Millenials have little expectation of privacy. At least among your circle of text-able friends, there are no secrets. And aren't we seeing this trend played out every day in the celebrity and political arenas? How was it possible that Anthony Weiner thought he still had a shot in the mayoral race, even after those embarrassing personal disclosures? How is it that Rob Ford thinks he can hang on to his job? Same way, years ago, Marion Berry bounced back. (Hey, "the Three Mayors" should practice singing tenor.) And even though it happened not all that long ago (when Millenials were babes in arms), would the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal last more than a week these days?

Picture it: The shady operative sidles up to you and whispers, "I have pictures of you zipping up your pants, coming out of a cemetery." "Oh, yeah," you say. "Not just me. My homies got snaps up close and personal! I mean, it was hysterical!"

By the way, I turned to Jim for a reality check on the cold fusion process I describe in Farnsworth's Revenge. We agreed:  

The one thing a scientist fears much more than being proven wrong is being made to look ridiculous.

And, thanks to the boobs who have made bogus claims...

Cold Fusion Researcher = Clown

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

My Inflatable Friend - The Real Truth

My Inflatable Friend is the first in the three-book series of Rollo Hemphill misadventures. Farnsworth's Revenge will be published this spring - perhaps with some sneak previews. That book is written such that you can follow the plot even if you didn't read the first two books. But if you're one of those folks who binge-watches TV series like House of Cards on Netflix, you will want to begin at the beginning so you are prepared. My Inflatable Friend is available as Kindle on special for the next few days. Trade paper is available, too, for you retro readers who still have space on your bookshelves.
My Inflatable Friend has to do with poor Rollo's swelling ego. But it does all start with his scheme to make his girlfriend jealous with an inflatable doll. Never mind that a real woman would not be threatened by any inflatable toy. That ruse simply doesn't work. But when he creates a realistic doll that looks like a famous soap star, look out. The tabloids apparently don't care what the truth is. The news that Rollo is having an affair with Monica LaMonica is just too good not to print.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Women Won't Let Men Read

 "Any man's life, told truly, is a novel." - Ernest Hemingway

Surely Papa didn't mean it: "Any man's life, told truly, is a novel." Certainly, he must have been speaking of mankind, individuals of the human race, and not deliberately or dismissively excluding the fairer sex from his huge generalization.
But maybe he meant it just exactly the way it comes across today. More than any author before him, and as stridently as any of his imitators since, Hemingway identified the profession of writing as man's work. And his entire life away from the typewriter seemed to be a celebration of masculinity - shooting wild animals on safari, fighting bulls in the ring, and habitually wearing that military-style safari jacket with the epaulets and all those pockets - which became the very badge of the latter-day cigarillo-chomping, proudly male novelist, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Hunter S. Thompson.
Is it any surprise that the women of the publishing world would retaliate against this unspeakable discrimination? In Hemingway's era, perhaps the most talented female novelist was Edith Wharton, whose baroque prose style rivaled Henry James, her longtime friend. While not singling out Wharton as the enemy, Hemingway railed against baroque style in any form. Clean and simple were his sentences, and the clarity of journalistic prose benefited greatly. But it impoverished artistic prose. To this day, agents, publishers, and the few editors who are left harp on the principles of Hemingway's plain-vanilla style. Frankly, I'm sick of it, but that's a topic for another blog.
Perhaps thanks to Papa Hemingway, the quest for the "great American novel" in the twentieth century was considered by the publishing industry and audiences alike to be a man's game: All those Johns - John O'Hara, John Steinbeck, John Cheever, John Updike. And then there's Philip Roth, who promoted the self-centered maleness of masturbation to high art and never wrote a novel that wasn't about his own dick.
During the reign of these male moguls in the literary sphere, there have been female giants like Joyce Carol Oates and Anne Tyler. Their novels are brilliant but they didn't get anywhere near seriously  comparable treatment. Someone should have told them to wear safari jackets.
Now, according to Jason Pinter's recent piece in Huffington Post, men can't get a place at the table. In its death throes, the publishing industry has favored lower-paid executives and editors - surprise, women! - and guess what? - they don't like male-centered fiction much at all, perhaps rationalizing that, these days, men don't bother to read. (More to the point, men don't buy as many books as women do, and that's a fact.)
Undeniably, chick lit is a hugely successful, commercial genre, and that's where female writers have blazed their widest inroads. But, sadly for the sake of feminist sexual politics, chick lit is modeled on an old sexist formula. Both Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City are modeled shamelessly on Jane Austen. The plot engine is about finding Mr. Right in an economic world dominated entirely by men. Certainly Carrie Bradshaw is a talented free agent who can write her own books and host her own publicity events. But she will never have her own private plane unless Big, the guy with the big bank account and bigger heart, takes her to wife.
Even sorrier for the sake of equity between the sexes is the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. With a plot ripped off from the Story of O, this piece of puke-flavored pulp celebrates the degradation of women. And for reasons that escape me, guess who's buying it?
Okay, men grabbed the literary limelight in the last century. Today, you'd think we can't get a break, and perhaps we deserve it.