Forrest Gump Meets Mr Magoo

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Title: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared

Rating: 4 Stars

Yes, that’s really the title.  And yes, that’s pretty much the plot of the novel.

This was one of the books that I picked up at Foyle’s, the bookstore in London. I made a point of picking a European author that I’ve never heard of, hoping that I’d get a title that would be scarcer to get in the US. Of course, when I brought the book in to work one day to read during lunch, my cube-mate looked over, saw it, and casually mentioned that his partner at home has it on her book shelf ready to read. Oh well, so much for me being original.

It really is a simple story. A man (Allan Karlsson) at a nursing home is about to celebrate his birthday. There is going to be a big party and the mayor will meet him and shake his hand. He really doesn’t like it there and he really doesn’t like being such a center of attention, so before the party he manages to climb out the window and goes for a walk.

Karlsson heads to a bus station. There, a young man wearing the jacket of a gang asks him to watch his suitcase while he goes to the bathroom. Left with the unattended suitcase, this inspires in Karlsson an unexpected desire for larceny. He takes the suitcase, boards the next bus, and heads off.

At that point, the adventure is on. It turns out that the suitcase is full of ill-gotten money, so understandably, the gang member, and later, other members of the gang, take off in pursuit of Karlsson. Karlsson, in turn, manages to befriend several people that together decide to split the money and try to stay ahead of the gang members.

Through coincidences and happenstance, not only do they stay ahead of the gang members, but actually manage to dispatch a couple. The police, first called in when Karlsson was reported missing and feared kidnapped, are now also pursuing Karlsson and his friends for the suspected murders.

All of this is handled with gentle humor. As a 100 year old man, Karlsson has learned to take events rather calmly and sure enough, things just seem to manage to work out for him.

At the same time that the pursuit of Karlsson is taking place, we learn his back story, and what a back story it is. It turns out, via a series of bizarre twists in his life, he has met / worked for / drank with Francisco Franco, Mao Zedung, Harry Truman, Kim Il Sung, and Charles de Gaulle, among others. He made the breakthrough that allowed the US to build the atomic weapon, and then later, while drunk on a submarine, also told the Soviets. Through all of these adventures Karlsson is calm and unperturbed.

So, the title of this post is now more easily understood. Like Forrest Gump, Karlsson is inadvertently at several key moments in history. Like Mr Magoo, he blunders into all kinds of potentially catastrophic circumstances and emerges unscathed.

There is nothing extreme about this book. It is suffused with gentle, genial humor. Usually I find this kind of humor obvious or off putting, but here it is absolutely charming. There were several moments where I just shook my head and laughed out loud. The denouement with the prosecutor bent upon arresting and convicting Karlsson was especially humorous.

By the end, I was completely won over with the adventures of Allan Karlsson.

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When YA Goes Seriously Wrong

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Title: Where All Lights Tends To Go

Rating: 4 Stars

One of my favorite genres goes by many names. My favorite name for it is Appalachian Noir. It’s set in some exceedingly rural part of West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, or Illinois. Yes, I know that all of those states don’t necessarily include the Appalachians. I’m specifically referring to Colin Woodard’s book regarding the 11 American nations. His thesis, as you can probably guess, is that the 48 continental states are strictly artificial constructs. If you track migration patterns, social norms and behavior, you can identify 11 specifically different nations within the continental US. One of those nations is named Greater Appalachia, which traces the migration of the hardscrabble, fiercely independent, predominately Scots-Irish population. This area covers a good chunk of the central United States.

Using that definition, there is a body of current literature that fits into a pattern, both geographically and socially. I’m talking about Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, and Chris Offut, among others. The stories are about the forgotten people of the flyover states. They live in towns or hamlets or hollows. The towns were probably never really healthy, but are now positively dying. Manufacturing has moved overseas, farming has become industrialized, and there is no hope of recovery. In these failed towns are the old people tied to the land that will die there, the meth addicts that try to lose themselves, the dealers that supply them, and the law officers feebly trying to keep the peace while also themselves trying to get along.

These stories all have a desperate, hopeless, fatalistic energy to them. They’re peopled by characters that everyone has given up on, that have given up on themselves, but still grimly survive from moment to moment.

Joy’s novel follows this same pattern. The protagonist is Jacob. He dropped out of high school two years ago at the age of sixteen to work full time for his father, the leader of a meth ring. His father is a brutal monster who will do whatever he needs to do to survive.  Jacob’s mom, divorced from her father, is a chronic meth addict bent on self destruction.

Given the hand that he was dealt, Jacob has no illusions regarding his future. He’s stuck in the town working for his father until he dies. The one light in his life is a young woman named Maggie that he grew up with, once dated, and is still hopelessly in love with. She’s full of grace and is destined to escape the town. Seeing her escape is the one joy that Jacob allows himself.

Things take a turn for the worse when, in the course of torturing a supposed informant, Jacob and two of his father’s henchmen kill the informant and leave him in the hills for dead. He’s found, days later, in a coma, but still alive. If he comes out of the coma, he can finger the henchmen and potentially bring down Jacob’s father as well. At the same time, Jacob’s mom goes off on a meth binge that ends up having her screaming Jacob’s father’s secrets to the police.

Jacob’s father cannot let these two things stand. Jacob, hating his father and pitying his mother, is caught in the middle, desperately wanting to escape but knowingly condemned to his destiny.

In all of this, he sees Maggie and dares to dream of an escape and a life that seems impossible.

One mark against this novel is that the female characters are not treated well. The male characters are not either, but at least they have some sense of agency. Jacob’s mom and his father’s girlfriend are not fleshed out. Maggie is painted as an angelic ideal. Granted, this novel is written in the first person by Jacob, but it still would have been nice to have a little bit more thought put into the female characters.

This, to a large degree, nearly qualifies as a Young Adult novel. You have a young man trying to be a ‘man’, but not really understanding what that means and is struggling to come up with a definition of it that he can live it. Living in an environment of depravity and immorality, can he make choices to allow himself to escape that fate?

If you’ve read this genre before, then you’ll know that winning is really never an option here. The best that you can hope for is to lose on your own terms.

By the end, Jacob understands this all too well.

 

When Does Art Become Fraud?

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Title: Author The JT Leroy Story

Rating: 4 Stars

The major theme of this documentary is expressing identity through art.

Laura Albert is a writer that had a troubled childhood. She has trouble expressing these issues, writing as herself, so she created alternate personas that served as the vehicle that allows her to channel her pain.

One of these characters is JT Leroy (Jeremiah Terminator). Although she was an adult woman when she started channeling (for lack of a better word) JT, JT is himself a sixteen year old boy that had a truck stop prostitute for a mother and was himself, at various times, a prostitute.

As JT, Laura managed to get short stories written by JT noticed and was able to get them published. In the literary world, she began to acquire mentors. She never met any of them in person and she communicated to them only as JT.

JT wrote a novel called Sarah, a brutal story of abuse, violence, and hostility about growing up as a ‘boy-girl’ prostitute working the truck stop circuit. Although it was marketed as a work of fiction, given JT’s background, most assumed it to be autobiographical.

Up to this time, Laura had been able to maintain the JT identift purely by phone conversations (all of which she recorded (which the movie makes heavy use of) for some unexplained reason (I’ve later heard outside the context of this movie that Laura had an obsession with telephones, which might partially explain it)).

As the popularity of Sarah takes off, pressure grows as the media demands to interview JT. At a loss, Laura happens to notice her sister-in-law’s, Savannah, somewhat androgynous looks. Laura decides to put a blonde wig on Savannah and hide her behind huge sunglasses. Laura then starts to pass Savannah off as JT. So that Laura stays involved with this, Laura passes herself off as JT’s manager, Speedie (complete with British accent). Confused yet?

Amazingly enough, it all works. Savannah, when she assumes the wig and glasses, mysteriously starts to channel JT herself. JT quickly becomes a media darling. He becomes friends with Wynona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant, Bono, and others. Laura confides her identity to a couple of the celebrities, but by and large, nearly all of them only know JT through Savannah.

In 2006, the truth comes out and a firestorm breaks out. Celebrities feel betrayed. The media feels that they’ve been hoaxed.

But have they? That’s kind of the crux of the movie.

As said above, all of JT’s works are classified as fiction. This is no A Million Little Pieces fraud. Laura believes that she does not have multiple personality disorder, but she does feel that she can channel personas. In her life, there have been a number of boys that have effectively passed through her body. From her point of view, JT is an entity and his experiences are true within the reality of that entity. JT is real to her.

Was Savannah posing as JT a fraud? Or was it simply performance art?  Some kind of cinema verite of the lecture circuit? If it was fraud, who were the victims? The celebrities who fawned over her? Were JT’s fans, who really wanted nothing more than to meet JT, victims? What was actually being swindled?

Gender identity for so long has been considered binary.  In this era of growing acceptance of the notion that gender identify is way more complex than that, what do we make of a woman, horribly abused during childhood, who is only able to express that pain through the voice of a young boy? Is there room for such people that can’t even be pigeonholed by our currently expanded definitions of gender?

At what point does reality have to impose its concrete construct upon art?

 

Laurel and Hardy Take Comparative Religion 101

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Title: Lamb

Rating: 2 Stars

I usually like Christopher Moore. I especially enjoyed A Dirty Job and Fool. I had reasonably high hopes for Lamb, but was worried that the subject matter wouldn’t really be a good fit for his style.

It turns out, in my opinion, that I was correct. This is the story of Jesus (or Joshua, as he’s consistently called here), as told by his best friend Levi (nicknamed Biff). The plot is that Biff has been resurrected to write a true account of Joshua’s life, since the Gospel accounts only barely cover his birth and then the last years of his life. Biff was at Joshua’s side his entire life, so is uniquely qualified to write the account.

So, let’s start with the name, Biff. That probably should have been a signal to me from the beginning. Despite an afterword in which Moore talks about the amount of research that went into writing this book, which would kind of lend itself to a belief that Moore was going to try to do something at least semi-meaningful with this knowledge, the fact that he chose Biff as the name of Joshua’s sidekick is a pretty good clue that this is going to be a sophomoric effort.

It turns out that, during those missing years, Joshua and Biff went on an epic voyage, where they spent years studying with a magician, a Buddhist, and a Hindi guru. He learned all of the best bits from each and synthesized them with his own Jewish learnings to create effectively a new religion.

After this adventure, he comes back to Judea, where it pretty much picks up with what we know: preaching, healing miracles, gathering apostles, and ultimately arrest, trial, conviction, death, and resurrection.

It’s kind of a clever concept, but it’s just so simply done. The humor is broad. Joshua’s learning from each master has the subtly of an ax to the head. I’ve just read a history of comedy, and the book reads like nothing more than a vaudeville routine.

It was probably a vain hope, but I was really hoping for a more humorously nuanced view of how Joshua came to his teachings and came to reconcile himself with his destiny. Instead we end up with silliness like Joshua / Biff discovering putting milk in coffee and inventing the pencil.

I get that Moore tends towards the sophomoric. For instance, Fool is the story of Lear, from the point of view of, well, the fool. And yes, it was pretty obvious and simplistic. However, in the play itself, the fool is simplistic with a rapier wit. Therefore, the broadness actually plays well here.

And, Shakespeare is not religion. It’s not so much that making fun of religion in a sophomoric way is not a good idea (see Life of Brian), but here the humor is just off. The book just seems like it was written by a snotty twenty-one year old who’s just discovered that he’s an atheist.

Serious Business

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Title: The Comedians

Rating: 5 Stars

This is an outstanding book. The way that it’s structured, it almost reads as an oral history, so it was quite reminiscent to Please Kill Me, the oral history that I’ve just read about punk rock.

This picks it up at vaudeville and carries all of the way through to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Every comedian of note during that time is name dropped here, and enough of his/her back story is told to inform you where the comedian fits into the overarching framework of comedy.

The chapters move from vaudeville to radio to nightclubs to television to comedy clubs. Over time, the comedy evolved from people telling the same set of jokes to the current style, where comedy is a deeply personal expression.

Since it is in a lot of ways an oral history, there really isn’t a pure narrative. For each chapter (eg radio), there would be a set of personal stories describing how it emerged, who were the main stars, and ultimately, what brought it down (usually the subject of the next chapter).

Therefore, it’s hard for me to provide a distillation of events. Instead, here is a very small number of interesting things that I learned while reading it:

Vaudeville and burlesque were in direct competition with each other. Vaudeville (through an effective monopoly) enforced a strict set of performance standards (some of which were still carrying forward into the radio age) while burlesque was more bawdy. They had a strict list of topics that were off limits, including such bizarre topics such as Herbert Hoover and ‘Arabs’. In fact, even into the 1940’s, comedians were being arrested and imprisoned for doing a ‘blue’ act.

Drugs have a long history in comedy. It extends all of the way back to vaudeville and burlesque. Life was so tough on the road (hard travel between small towns to collect an uncertain paycheck) that comedians often resorted to alcohol and opium. They were considered in the same class as prostitutes and some comedians even back then supplemented their pay by becoming dealers.

The first real stand-up was the long forgotten Frank Fay. The first comedians were essentially prop comedians. Fay was the first person that essentially just stood at the mike and spoke.

The rise of radio brought with it the rise of mass advertising. With the rise of mass advertising, much of the creativity and innovation of comedian was stifled. Scripts were run past the advertisers to make sure that they would pass muster. Those comedians that tried to fight it, namely Fred Allen and Henry Morgan, quickly were relegated to the sidelines.

The mob had a huge influence in comedy. The mobs owned most of the nightclubs, so when comedians started working the nightclub circuit, they began to rub shoulders with mobsters. The term stand-up is itself a mafia originated term. A stand-up comedian was just like a mob stand-up guy, someone who is willing to stand up and give his shots and take some shots back (ie hecklers).

Some comedians crossed mobsters, much to their peril. Joe E Lewis, not knowing that it was a problem, worked two clubs in Chicago that were owned by two different gangs. One of the gangs sent him a message by beating him and slicing open his face. It took him a year or so to be able to talk again. He was left scarred and with a permanent speech impediment, but grimly went back to work as a comedian. The mob, impressed with his guts (and also impressed that he did not rat out his attackers) took care of him and got him comedy work for the rest of his career.

Jerry Lewis, while teamed with Dean Martin, was once going around the crowd doing his silly act of bumping into people, spilling their drinks, etc. He unknowingly twice harassed Albert Anastasis, head of Murder, Inc., who was rising out of his seat to attack Lewis when Lewis was whisked away.

I remember Buddy Hackett as kind of a lovable goofball. On the nightclub circuit, he was unbelievably profane. Also, he was a maniac offstage and would regularly engage in fights, destroy property, and was pretty much a general asshole.

Redd Foxx and Malcolm X were friends when they were young. In fact, they were drug dealers together.

Jay Leno got his start doing sets in mental hospitals.

The ill fated Dana Carvey show, which only lasted seven weeks, had the following people as writers or performers: Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK, Charlie Kaufmann, and Robert Smigel.

Like I said, I could keep going on and on. There’s just a ton of interesting anecdotes that can be gleaned from this book.

It’s interesting to me that I’m old enough to have encountered a good chunk of the comedians myself, primarily through television. Comparing their television persona to their nightclub act and to their own personal life was fascinating.  Triggering all of these childhood memories was probably one of the main reasons why I gave it such a high rating.  If you’re too young to have no memory of Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Red Foxx and so on, then these just might be a bunch of unknown references.  However, if these names do ring a bell, I’m pretty sure that you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.

 

War Is Madness

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Title: Imperial War Museums (London)

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sometimes military museums are all about uniforms and guns.

The IWM is a little bit different. First of all, the London museum focuses on wars that the UK fought in from WWI and on, so there were no display cases of medieval armor or swords.

The advantage of doing this is that the museum becomes one that you can spend an hour or two in without getting overwhelmed. Contrast that with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has everything from Roman arches to women’s dresses from the 1960’s. Sure, if you live in London and have the time to make multiple trips to a museum, you can focus on one section at a time. For a visitor, it becomes nearly overwhelming. You can just arbitrarily focus on one section, or blow through all sections, spending about two minutes per room, or choose from some kind of top twenty-five item list and head off on a scavenger hunt.

For the IWM, I focused on WWI and WWII.  I know that there are other sections (smaller in size), but just from a larger historical sense, this was an area of personal interest, and clearly the UK had a big role to play in both. I was able to make it through both sections in a couple of hours.

I was not disappointed in either. Although both exhibits had lots of uniforms and weaponry, they also had other areas of interest. For instance, they had Rommel’s desert map for his North Africa campaign. They had Montgomery’s hand written one page plan for D-Day. I’d mentioned before how seeing artifacts that someone historically significant wrote or used always makes me feel closer to the event. I was also fascinated by being able to see an Enigma encryption machine up close and personal. They also focus on the home front side of the war as well. The most poignant was the Mickey Mouse gas masks designed for children. Speaking of the home front, they had examples of both the V-1 and the V-2 rockets that rained down upon London.

The heart of the library is its WWI exhibit, and it is quite impressive. They had so many artifacts that it ended up being overwhelming and I’m sure that I missed many interesting things. Of the weapons, I was most impressed with Big Bertha, the gun that Germany used to batter the Belgium forts.

Instead of trying (and inevitably failing) to put some narrative order to the things that I found cool, here’s a list:

  • Posters designed to recruit across the British Empire (eg exhortations for Indians / Bahamanians to enlist)
  • Hand painted trench signs (some practical (eg Hospital), some ironic (eg Picadilly))
  • A set of wooden clubs with nails sticking out, looking pretty much exactly like a medieval mace, that was used by soldiers when they would periodically leap out of their trench to savagely attack their nearby enemies in fierce hand-to-hand combat; such attacks were scheduled by officers as a means to keep their men’s morale up (?!)
  • A life ring from the ill fated Lusitania
  • An actual letter with a white feather accusing a man on the home front of cowardice (such men were given white feathers)
  • Similarly, a hand written post card was mailed to a man on the home front suggesting that he should enlist with the Girl Scouts
  • The actual signed surrender document by the rebels ending the Irish Easter Rising of 1916
  • Examples of the ersatz bread (composed of sawdust) made by Germans while they were being starved during the last stages of the war
  • David Lloyd George’s copy of the Armistice
  • A 1918 film showing the severe ‘shell shock’ (ie PTSD) that so many English soldiers were suffering from

There was oh so much more. However, hopefully I showed that this wasn’t just a jingoistic description of war in all of its glory. The museum really did try to take an evenhanded look and try to describe the impact that such a major calamity of WWI had on soldiers, the home front, on the people you were fighting, and the aftermath.

The London IWM was started right after WWI, so the events were fresh in everyone’s mind, which I’m guessing was probably helpful in avoiding a hagiographic approach to war.

In 1936, it moved to its permanent headquarters (where it still is today), which was the old Bethlem Royal Hospital. It is more famously known as Bedlam. It was one of Europe’s oldest mental institutions and gained a reputation as being one of the most notorious insane asylums with some truly horrible practices and abuses of the mentally ill.

The irony of hosting a war museum in a location that was formally an insane asylum is probably not lost on anyone. After leaving the WWI exhibit, that connection is even more obvious and stronger.

Carver’s Spirit Lives On

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Title: Jesus’ Son

Rating: 5 Stars

I really do have a weakness for this type of collection of short stories. This is yet another set of sparely written vaguely interconnected stories about addicts and the hardscrabble life that they lead.

I’m sure that Raymond Carver is probably the godfather of this entire genre. I just learned that Denis Johnson spent some time as a student of Carver, so this might not be completely coincidental. One of my favorite authors is Donald Roy Pollock, who also inhabits this space.

The stories are told in the first person. It appears to be the same voice in all stories. It’s clearly a young man, addicted to drugs, who hangs out with other young men, all also so addicted. In one story a character dies and in a later story he’s alive, so the stories are not necessarily linear. He starts a narrative in one short story, and then several stories later, remembers that he never finished it, so picks up where he left off.

His stories about the grinding poverty and passive hopelessness and helplessness that the narrator lives in are made endurable by the beautiful style in which the stories are written and the gallows dark humor of his work.

One such story involves the narrator at a hospital whose best friend there is an orderly. They’re working the graveyard shift. Expecting nothing to happen, they both are extremely high on drugs (his friend is actively hallucinating). A person comes in with a knife in one eye. His other eye is a plastic eye. Even though he has a knife in his one good eye,  he can still see, so does not seem overly concerned. His wife stabbed him, although he seems to acknowledge that he deserved it. He only wants the police called if he dies. The emergency room doctor decides to call in an expert eye doctor and a brain surgeon for this clearly delicate procedure. As part of their intense planning, they ask the stoned orderly to prep him. He does so and he comes out carrying the knife, much to everyone’s astonishment. And yes, the victim is fine. Later, when the victim tries to thank the orderly, the orderly no longer even recognizes him.

In another story, after the rare occasion of actually doing a hard day of work (albeit not completely legal), the narrator is feeling rich with twenty-eight dollars in his pocket. He goes to the local dive, The Vine, and his day gets even better when the bartender is a woman who consistently over pours the drinks, thus effectively doubling the amount of alcohol that he can buy. Not only does this qualify as a day of wonder in his life, but as the woman pours her drinks, her generosity spurs memories of his own mother. He sees the generous bartender as his primary source of nurturing.

By the end of the collection, the narrator is in recovery, has some menial job working at a adult living facility, has a girlfriend who has encephalitis, and consistently spends his evenings covertly peeping in on a Mennonite couple. In Johnson’s world, this counts as positive progress.

It’s a slight collection of stories (eleven stories spread out over 130 pages), but each story is strong. The stories are stripped down to their bare essence.

Nothing is wasted and nothing is missing.

WTF Did I Just See?

Title: Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities

One of my primary goals for my London trip, since I’m going by myself, is to see things that most people would have no desire to see. Everyone wants to go to the British Museum or to ride the London Eye.

I was looking for odd. Well, I found it when I went to Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities.

The purpose of this museum is part educational and part artistic. The exhibits are spread out over two low-roofed relatively small rooms in the basement of a bar. There really is no order at all to it. In each exhibit case is pretty much a random assortment of objects.

And what a random assortment of objects!

Are you looking for celebrity memorabilia? How about a jar containing Russell Crowe’s urine? Or how about a jar of used condoms and a Viagra package from the Rolling Stones? Both complete with a signed affidavit explaining its provenance.

There was a significant number of sexual related artifacts. There were a number of pulp paperbacks with sexually suggestive titles (eg The Naughty Nun). There was a box of condoms for those with a small penis. There were African / Asian fertility dolls, a number of stone phallus’ and vaginas and a wide variety of pornographic drawings dating back a couple of hundred years.

Wynd has a weakness for books with obscure / esoteric titles, which I found hilarious. There was a relationship book titled “If You Want Closure, Start With Your Legs”. There was another book titled “Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them”. How about the “Toddlers Guide to the Rubber Industry”. Who would want to read “The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry”? As a history geek, I seemed to have missed out on “The History and Social Influence of the Potato”. And finally, one I should probably read, “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”.

Wynd is also a taxidermist (he teaches classes), so there are numerous examples, both stuffed and skeletal. There is a two-headed sheep. There is a full skeleton of a tiger. There are a number of bones and skulls spread across all of the exhibition cases. The skeleton of three mice, I’m guessing they were blind, are together in a special case of their own. My personal favorite was a stuffed, odd-looking hairy pig. According to the caption, the farmer, a religious man, was convinced that this revolting pig was some kind of punishment from God. When it died, he stuffed it and displayed it to remind his family of their sinful nature.

The piece de resistance was the skull of a Hippopotamus head. Not just any hippo’s head, but the head of a hippo that was bought by Pablo Escobar. Yes, the billionaire drug lord. Apparently he was building his own personal zoo in Colombia. He ordered four hippos. One died in route, and in truly world class drug lord behavior, had the hippo’s skull encased in gold. So, in the basement of a dingy storefront that also serves as a bar in a semi-remote part of London lies the gold plated head of a hippopotamus that was once owned by the most infamous drug lord of the twentieth century. I can only imagine the path taken to have the head end up there.

Now, of course, the question is, how much of this is bullshit? For instance, it’s a known fact that Escobar did import hippos into Colombia. In fact (I just did a quick research), they’ve run wild, are breeding, and are becoming a problem. But there’s no evidence of one of the hippos skulls ever being gold-plated. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s false; does the truth really matter as you experience and enjoy it?

Near Venice Beach, there is The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Like the Wynd, it is also a throwback to the 16th century cabinet of curiosities, which were basically unsystematic encyclopedic collections. They both jumble everything together. Some things might be real. Many things might be false. The point isn’t to worry so much about the literal truth of the item as to enjoy the feelings and thoughts as you experience them.

I believe that, for both museums, this melding of truth / falseness and how you feel about it is the artistic statement that each is trying to make and is more important than the actual specimens in the museum.

I found both to the entertaining, amusing, and though provoking.

Drinking with Dickens

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One of my goals while I was in London was to have a pint at the oldest pub in London. This turned out to be a nontrivial activity, first of all because records weren’t really kept all that long ago and then the London fire of 1666 pretty much wiped out a good chunk of the potential contenders.

With no clear winner, I went with the consensus pick, which is Ye Old Chesire Cheese, located on Fleet Street, which is itself a historically notable landmark. It dates back to 1538. The was built on top of a Carmelite monastery which dates back to the 13th century. The pub did burn down in 1666, but it was re-built in the same spot.

Allegedly Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, and P.G. Wodehouse all were regulars here. A couple of them even mention / refer to the pub in some of their writings. In fact, in trying to find it, I stumbled upon Samuel Johnson’s house which is located barely a block away.

It is accessible from a small, dark, narrow alley. Next to the entrance is the list of monarchs that have ruled England since it’s been open.

You go in and immediately it looks extremely small. There is a tiny bar off to the right as you enter and the dining room is on the left. However, if you continue moving forward, you’ll eventually come to a stairway, which leads to a veritable warren of room.

The staircase is basically designed for a hobbit. There are signs warning you to duck your head, but they are scarcely necessary since an average sized person would probably hit his chin going down the stairs if not careful.

In the lower levels, there are no windows, so by necessity the rooms are all pretty dark. Rooms are framed by archways that in theory date back to the 13th century monastery. Looking at the arches, that seems very feasible. The rooms aren’t heated; apparently in the winter each room will be lit and heated by fire.  I was there in the summer, so there was no need.

With my pint in my hand, surveying the wooden tables, the low ceilings, the narrow stairway, and the ancient arches, I can certainly believe that I’d just been transported back to the 17th century.

Watching Macbeth In The House That Shakespeare Built

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Title: Macbeth

Rating: 5 Stars

I watched Macbeth today at Shakespeare’s Globe. Now, I know that that isn’t really the same play house that Shakespeare performed in. It burned down 400 years ago. This incarnation was completed in 1997 about 750 feet away from the original and it was built using modern construction techniques, so the probability of it burning down is substantially reduced. However, the architects / designers did make a special effort to make the reconstruction as historically accurate as possible to replicate the feeling of going to an Elizabethan play. So, yeah, my title is not exactly accurate. So sue me.

Late last year, I was in London and went on a tour of the Globe. It was a wonderful experience and lit in me a desire to see a play there. Six months ago or so, I just happened to do a random check of the Globe web site and I saw that they were doing Macbeth as part of their summer schedule. On an impulse, I bought a ticket, with no idea of whether I would actually be able to attend the play or not. Well, things worked out and here I am!

First things first, the play was pretty awesome. Even though the character’s attire was relatively modern and there was some updating of dialog (I don’t think that even Shakespeare was a brilliant enough tragedian/comedian to include a Trump reference). I didn’t see anything happen on the stage that couldn’t have been staged in Elizabethan time, which preserved the basic essence of the event for me.

I was also struck by the fact that the actor playing Macbeth was black while the actor playing Lady Macbeth was female. Not shocking now but clearly a very real demonstration of progress that has taken place. I wonder if, like there are for the superhero comic books, there are Shakespeare equivalent geek fanboys, that get all upset to see a female playing on the stage, shrilling that the Globe is straying from the Shakespeare canon? And, ultimately, will the complaining purist comic book fanboys ultimately look as ridiculous as such theoretical Shakespearean fanboys?

At the Globe, you can buy seated tickets or you can stand in the pit (playgoers in the pit are called groundlings). In Shakespeare’s time, groundlings were the common riffraff while the seated were the people that could afford to splurge. I was tempted to do the groundling route (tickets are much cheaper and it does seem a more authentic experience), but the idea of standing around in three hours, regardless of the weather, deterred me and I went the Elizabethan one percenter route and bought a ticket. I’m glad I did. The weather, for the first time since I’ve been here, was cold and wet. Also, my seat gave me a wonderful view of the proceedings.

The groundlings were interesting. I think that their tickets were something like five pounds. It skewed, for probably obvious reasons, to a younger crowd. They did not seem at all deterred by the rain, wind, and cold. The Globe sells rain gear that many were wearing. Several others were willing to just get wet. It seems like a great tradition and a fantastic way to introduce young people to the theater experience.

I don’t how it was in Shakespeare’s day, but many aspects of the performance were devoted to the groundlings. After the intermission, there was a call and response between an actor and the groundlings. This was a great way to get the crowd back plugged into the rest of the play. Several times, individual groundlings were asked questions by an actor on stage. Actors, at times, mingled with the groundlings during the performance. The groundlings at one point were used as the army getting ready to attack Dunsinane.

The weather played to the play’s advantage. The cold, the gusts of wind, the occasional bursts of rain added to the dark, mysterious qualities of Macbeth. Although more comfortable, performing Macbeth on a bright sunny day might have actually been detracting.

One thing that I find interesting, now that I’ve seen many Shakespeare plays and I’m now starting to repeat, is how different actors / staging leads to almost different plays, even though the same words are being spoken.

This Macbeth was a fine example. The character playing Macbeth plays him with much less indecision than I’ve seen previously. He’s a strong man ready to take action. After the weird sisters’ prophecy, he almost immediately, with great confidence, begins to picture himself as being regal. He still has a momentary doubt, which Lady Macbeth successfully dispels, but after that, he’s always moving forward and confidently.

The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as played here, is predominantly a romantic one. They are clearly in love with each other and support each other as needed. At the end of Act III, after the disastrous dinner where the ghostly Banquo (expertly done) appears, there is the final scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appearing together, when they understand that the path that they have taken together is doomed, you can see their shared grief. It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Duncan, the King of Scotland, who’s usually played as a gentle yet wise king, is played here almost as if he’s a lightweight nonentity. Similarly, Malcolm, his heir apparent, until the final act shows nothing of leadership. You can imagine how such a strong person like Macbeth could have been chaffing under such weak leadership, and given a little push by fate, leaps at the opportunity to reach for the glory that possibly deservedly should be his.

The decision, six months ago, when I semi-randomly decided to buy a ticket for a play in London with absolutely no idea of how I was going to work it, has turned out to be a truly personal highlight. It’s a great memory and I’ll always be glad that I did it.