Monday, May 23, 2011


How many times, while growing up in Florida, did lurid billboards hawking amazing spectacles awaiting at dozens of entertainment venues---ranging from alligator farms and mermaid grottoes of my younger self to strip-clubs with stunning beauties grinning down at my teenaged self---fall far short of supplying what had been promised? SWAMPLANDIA! beckoned in a similar fashion, glowing reviews garnering my interest, only to let me down like so many a tourist trap. Yes, there was entertainment to be had and not all was squandered, but I still felt like a country bumpkin when I put down the book, mildly amused and cheekishly embarrassed that I actually had a little fun. Now, don't get me wrong, I think the book was an interesting read, and despite the increasingly unsettling feeling I got as one trusting protagonist hooked up with a certain lowlife character and she wouldn't listen to my warnings to wise up and escape the quicksand she was headed into, I enjoyed much of the novel and cared about the travails of the Bigtree siblings---all dealing with the dislocating and damaging experience of having their world (cocoon really) torn asunder under the combined onslaught of losing their mother to cancer, their business (an alligator-wrestling emporium) to competition, their father to grief and depression, their grandfather to senility, as they all react in somewhat self-destructive manners. Without giving too much away, the two girls both seemed to slip into fantasy, making them easy prey to inner and outer demons, while the boy---intelligent and striving---chooses a different, but no less immature, path. In some ways, this mishmash of a novel was like reading a first attempt by some unnatural offspring of an unholy union of Neil Gaiman and Dorothy Allison, with a touch of George Saunders thrown in for good measure. I can only conclude that Russell was tapping into the situational depression the children were undergoing. Still there was so much promised: a compelling ghost story, a heroic odyssey, a humorous critique of religious entertainment. But the three story-lines never really pan out, and one feels somewhat duped. Russell's writing is often beautiful and quirky, but also a little too, well, MFAish, and the switching back-and-forth in narrative was jarring at times. This would have been a far better book, I feel, if she had written it in the manner of Louise Erdrich, taking up each story on its own from the perspective of the protagonist, and letting their stories interweave yet stand alone. Russell seems to want to thread three short stories into a novelistic narration, and it didn't work for me. And, I doubt the hardcore advocates of homeschooling will be putting this one on their children's to-read list. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms, in the end I liked the book, and will let the gaudy come-ons calling readers to this young writer's first offering continue to deceive, because in the end the trip to Swamplandia is still worth the price of admission.


I think about Arnold, and how he won the governorship, and was touted as a presidential candidate if only he had been born in American, blah, blah, blah. . .and I remember all the stories of his mistreatment of women and the conservative blowhards on t.v. screaming bloody murder that the liberals were just out to get another conservative. . .and I think to myself, here's another example of liberals who backed down (and common folk who buy into the FOX mentality) and not fighting for what they know is right because we are cowed by the Right. Of course, that is not true for all, because many liberals step up and confront conservative wackos---who are living in some kind of fantasy land of racist, class-based, fundamentalist, tea-lovin' looniness---but it isn't enough. We have to make sure that this country reflects the needs of all its citizens, the entire diversity of its population, the needs of the little guy. Maybe Maria will spill some juicy insider information that sinks a few of the Republican frontrunners, and marginalize some of the kooks. Have you seen how the Republican candidates and potential candidates sidestep questions (evolution, taxes, etc.) that might bother the pitch-fork, shotgun toting, anti-education crackers (especially here in SC)? Any of them who has even strayed into a moderate position has already been pilloried. Makes you want to pull out a bat. . .OK, now let me be careful stepping off my soapbox. I feel better now.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Some nice photos and commentary on Obama that I felt I had to share with my friends. This blogger did an awesome job.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Watched tonight the Majid Majidi's movie about a young Iranian man (apparently Kurdish) who is a bit lazy and angry, who suddenly finds himself replaced from his somewhat cushy job as tea boy/messman by a younger Afghan boy who is more efficient and better liked by the construction crew to which he is attached. But he discovers it is a ruse, and the young boy is actually a girl, who is breaking cultural conventions to hide her identity and work alongside men in order to bring much-needed cash home. The Iranian boy matures as he keeps her identity hidden and falls in love, but this is no typical romance. It is also a commentary on the use of illegal labor (Afghans who had fled the Taliban in their homeland for a better opportunity), which mirrors that of illegal workers here, and provides insights into the boss/worker relationship in Iran. Much of the photography is gritty and gloomy, and one is surprised by the manual labor undertaken on the project, especially in modern times (the film was made in the late 1990s). One of the most poignant scenes is when he comes face-to-face with her, and they look into each other's eyes, and then she drops the chador over her head.The actors are very good. I really enjoyed it.

I wonder what happened to Zahra Bahrami (who plays the young girl). She is not listed as having acted in another movie. A woman with the same name, however, was executed this year in Iran for drug smuggling (although most people believe it was because of her support of reform). I hope they are not the same, though that does not diminish the tragedy of the woman's death.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Walter Inglis Anderson

Yesterday I took the boys to the McKissik Museum on the campus of the University of South Carolina and luckily walked into the last day of an exhibition devoted to the Southern painter Walter Inglis Anderson. And I do mean lucky. Largely self taught, and mentally ill, he had a special bond with nature that required increasing amounts of isolation on his part, from his family and the world, and from this exile of a sorts he produced startling beautiful watercolors. Early in his career he provided artwork for his brother's ceramics, lovely designs. He was heavily influenced by ancient art, but his really amazing creations, I think, were his small watercolors, produced apparently in the thousands while he walked about an island off the coast of Mississippi (I think). Some of his frescoes survive. I kept looking at his paitings and thinking that they easily could be ceramic tiles reproduced for the fanciest restaurants and homes. Maybe the family will one day let them be produced in such a manner, because they are really special.

In addition to Anderson's work, there was a really wonderful exhibition in the opposing hall that featured molas from the San Blas islands. Odd that both art works presented at this time would be island-related. These colorful sewn creations were originally used as the bodice panels on the women's dresses (or like a blouse work above a skirt), but they morphed into an industry aimed at gaining money from the tourist trade. I collect molas too, and I was stunned by the collection. I encourage people in Columbia to take a break and check them out.