Autodidact: self-taught

Aug
29
2014

Orange is the New Black (book)

by V. L. Craven

Orange is the New Black (book)

This review has spoilers for the book (which will be behind spoiler tags), but not the show. They’ve changed so much for the show you can read this with no worries. If you plan to read the book, here be spoilers. If you’re just curious as to what they changed between the book/real life and the show, read on.

First, in real life she was in Danbury in Connecticut, which is the prison Martha Stewart requested to be sent to, if that tells you anything. The book takes place during Stewart’s trial and sentencing so that plays some part of the plot, as it were (she was sent to a prison in West Virginia, ultimately) . The real prison was much nicer (for a prison) than the one in the show.

Second, the real life Piper is annoying like you wouldn’t believe. She’s regularly telling us about how the other prisoners are grateful for her presence and love her so. And how none of the guards can figure out why she’s in there. She also has the unending support and love from every single family member and friend (and friends-of-friends) on the outside.

People send her dozens of books a week to read. And she keeps all of them in and on her locker in her bunk (complaining about lack of space) rather than donating them to the rec room. In the second series of the show you see her going around taking all of her books back from people–even the ones she’s already read. That’s the real Piper. Who cares that you’re bored and will get yourself into trouble or fights without something useful to do like reading. Give me my books back!

Her visitors’ list is full (25 people) and then her counselor breaks the rules and lets her put on as many people as she wants. Rather than refusing this as it’s not fair to the others she just goes on and lets all the worshippers come to visit.

I’m sure it was difficult being away from her regular life for thirteen months, (she was sentenced to fifteen but got two months off for good behaviour) but if I hadn’t been reading it to try to work out who each person was in the show I would have put it down ages ago. They made an excellent decision in focusing on other characters in the show. The book would have been loads better if Kerman had spent less time talking about how great she was and more about other women. She says she learned to be less inside herself but you wouldn’t know it.

The most interesting parts of the book were about the travesty that is the criminal justice system and the real prisons, which she ends up in a couple of times during trials. It’s inhumane what’s going on, but this is not the book to tell you about it. I would only recommend this to hardcore fans of the show. 3/5 absolute tops. And I love fish-out-of-water stories.

On to:

Differences Between the Book/Real Life & the Show

Larry’s love and devotion did not waver for one second. He was there to visit every chance he could.

Piper was good friends with Pensatucky.

Piper was never in the SHU. Indeed she didn’t seem to witness any fights or actual sex.

Piper did not get furlough. (Her grandmother did die whilst she was in prison.)

Piper was not involved with any women in prison—she never told anyone she had ever been involved with a woman in the past.

Alex (in the book called Nora, in real life called Catherine) was in a different prison.

Piper knew she was going on the transport plane to Chicago. Not when, but she knew it was going to happen. She was then flown to Oklahoma to a hellhole of a prison (it’s the U.S.’s hub of the federal prison transport circuit) for several days and no access to phones. Nora/Alex was there, though for their first meeting in over a decade. As was Nora/Alex’s sister who was also involved in real life.
They were then flown to Chicago together to await their turn to testify and that prison was an even bigger hellhole than the one in Oklahoma, incredibly.

The person they were testifying against was a lower player in the group than on the show. It was someone Piper had never even met.

Characters from the show & Who they were in the book

Kerman changed the names of real people for the book and then most of those names were changed again for the show for some reason. I’m trying to work out who everyone is suppose to be. Drop me a note with your thoughts if you’ve read the book.

Piper Kerman = Piper Chapman
Nora Janson = Alex Vause
Pop = Red [In the book Pop is an enormous homophobe, which is clearly not true on the show]
Crazy Eyes = Crazy Eyes [completely different race, though]
Big Boo Clemmons = Big Boo Black [in the book she has a 200+ pound girlfriend named Trina]
Yoga Janet = Yoga Jones
Miss Malcolm = Miss Claudette [in the book she never got into a fight with a guard]
Vanessa = Sophia [she arrives after Piper in the book and isn’t accepted as well as she is in the show]
Delicious & Pom-Pom = Taystee? [it seems like this character is bits of both of those women]
Warden Kuma Deboo = Natalie Figueroa
Mr Butorsky = Mr Healy
Gay Pornstar = Pornstache
Annette = Anita
Miss Luz = Miss Rosa
Sister Ardeth Platte = Sister Ingalls [Sister Platte was one of the few people who allowed Kerman to use her real name in the book]
Joyce? = Nicky?
I’m not sure who Morello is based on, either. Perhaps Nina?

Aug
22
2014

A Study in Scarlet

by V. L. Craven

A Study in Scarlet

I’ve recently undertaken to read all of the Sherlock Holmes novels and stories in chronological order.

The first is the novel A Study in Scarlet, (1886) wherein a doctor who has been through hell after being injured in the military decides to rejoin life and needs to find a flatmate in order to remain in London. He’s introduced to Sherlock Holmes—an unusual sort, but compatible in domestic affairs—and they go in on a flat together.

Odd sorts from all strata of society show up at all times of the day and night, much to Dr Watson’s bemusement, until Holmes explains that he’s a consulting detective. He helps people with problems the police can’t or won’t handle.

Speaking of the police, Holmes is summoned by Tobias Gregson and Mr Lestrade of Scotland Yard to assist on a case. Gregson and Lestrade are in constant competition to be the better detective, which Holmes lets them get on with whilst he continues his investigations.

In brief, an American man is found dead in an abandoned house—apparently murdered, but with no visible wounds. There is blood on the scene, but it’s not from the victim—and it has been used to write the letters RACHE.

The reader is introduced to Sherlock Holmes through John Watson’s point of view, who finds him intriguing, as one would do. In this first novel we learn about Holmes’ general approach to life and how his mind works.

The book happens in two sections—the first taking place in the present day (that being 1886) and the second section going back several decades to explain how the American man came to be on the floor of an abandoned house in London. The second section was a surprise—I’d expected to remain in Victorian England the entire time, so to spend quite some time in a very different climate was something of a shock.  To have that very different climate be populated with Mormons… well… I thought some errant pages had made their way into my copy. Trust Conan Doyle, though.

Still, it was excellently written and intriguing. I absolutely recommend it for fans of Victorian literature or detective fiction. Or that show with the guy with the cheekbones and the Hobbit.

Aug
21
2014

Wonder Boys

by V. L. Craven

Wonder Boys

Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve seen it close to a dozen times and it makes me laugh every time. The screenplay captures the feel of the book, I think, and that’s something, because I really loved the book.

And how could I not? It’s about a professor, it’s about writing. It’s about a writing prodigy. And many mad-cap adventures of a rag-tag bunch that’s throw together of a weekend. The book is profound and lovely and funny and human and the film handles all of that beautifully.

Wonder Boys is about middle-aged professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) whose wife has left him, again, though this time it looks like it’s going to take. His previous novel was a smashing success, but that was several years ago, and his editor, Crabtree, (Robert Downey Jr fresh out of rehab, this was 2000) really wants his follow-up novel. Luckily, it’s the weekend of Word Fest, where visiting authors and literary types descend on the Pittsburgh university, giving him all the reason he needs to show up. It’s also the weekend that Tripp’s most gifted but morose student, James Leer, (Tobey Maguire) decides he’d rather hang around his professor than go home. Crabtree is all right with this, as he takes rather a shine to Mr Leer.

During all of this Tripp is trying to deal with his crumbling marriage, as well as the fact that the student who rents a room from him (Katie Holmes) has a bit of a thing for him, all the while fending off his editor’s questions about the next book. And then Tripp gets some news from his girlfriend that probably isn’t going to go over so well with her husband… And the weekend just keeps on getting better.

And, as if going for some sort of trifecta–the film also has one of my all-time favourite soundtracks . Including two of my favourite songs by Dylan.

When I was doing research for this review I came across this review that compares Wonder Boys to another professor-has-midlife-crisis-in-Pittsburgh film Smart People. It’s a good review–give it a look.

 

Aug
04
2014

Journals by Dragos Man

by V. L. Craven

In the age of ereaders (and I love mine) bookbinding is becoming a lost art, but Dragos Man has elevated something that can be a utilitarian way of attaching pieces of dead trees together into an art-form. His journals and albums appear to be antiques, as well they should since every element of them has been crafted by hand by someone who clearly knows (and loves) what he’s doing.

Journals by Dragos Man

A Tale from Transylvania

(See more photos of this journal here . On Etsy here .)

As soon as I saw Dragos’s journals on his Etsy site,  Dragosh , I had to have one. Then, when I started looking at his other, special order journals on his Facebook page in order to design my own I wanted to talk to the artist who makes them. Happily, he agreed to answer some questions.

I’ve never had a more difficult time choosing which photos to use with an interview, however, so be sure to check out all of the links provided–they open in other tabs so you won’t lose this page.

Per Dragos’ request I have edited some of his responses for clarity, as English is his second language.

Journals by Dragos Man

The artist and his best mate, Igor

Bookbinding is an art-form but you take it to the next level. How did you become interested in bookbinding? Did you study formally or are you self-taught?

I chose many paths in my life trying to find my real one and I worked in different fields just trying to find my way, like many others have. I always had the instinct to leave life to make choices for me and I just follow them–no matter how crazy that choice seems to be at that moment. And life just guided me here.

I started bookbinding 11 years ago without any knowledge about it because I needed to make some photo albums… and I started with some ugly albums, but I was so proud at that time.  In time I started to learn basics in bookbinding little by little and my products started to look acceptable, technically speaking.

For the “next level” my wandering through different fields of work in the past and the fact that I learned from my mistakes not from some school were my aces, because I didn’t have any prejudice about how I had to do things and I applied some unusual techniques from sculpture, metal working, wood working etc.

Journals by Dragos Man

Antique style journals

 (More photos of these journals here . Etsy listing here .)

Take me through the process of making a journal for your shop–not a special order, just a regular one. From having an idea for a new journal to putting the finishing touches on.

It starts with the idea, of course. After that I make a basic design–many times just in my mind–a design that I mostly don’t respect at all, because in time comes new ideas that usually add improvements. I don’t usually plan every detail at the beginning, it’s more interesting to leave your mind to wander all during the process. Sometimes I stay stuck on a small detail like a deer or a car headlight for days. This is frustrating but this is a part of the process. In this situation I put the work aside to wait its answer and start another one.

Journals by Dragos Man

Hammer of Thor journal

(More photos of this journal here .)

How many pieces are you working on at any given time?

Few, as I said before, sometimes I just have to wait for ideas and leave some work aside for a bit. The problem is with custom orders when you know that clients are waiting for news and I cannot provide any, this can put a little pressure on me, but fortunately all the clients that I’ve had till now were very patient and understand this without any explanation.

Sometimes the opposite happens and I do four week’s worth of work in one week… it’s all about the inspiration of the moment.

Journals by Dragos Man

Steampunk Leather Journal

(More photos of this journal here .)

In many of your descriptions you say you hand colour the leather. How do you do that? 

The leather can be coloured industrially, like in tanneries, for example, on the entire surface. I use sponges, cloth, brushes or airbrushes, even my finger sometimes to apply the color in different shades or in different amounts for every place on the cover to create different effects.

Journals by Dragos Man

Stone Journal

(More photos of this album here .)

Journals by Dragos Man

Wood-like Journal

(More photos of this journal here .)

How long, in hours, do you think it takes to make an average journal? When you’re actually, physically working on it.

I really don’t know how to answer this, I don’t count only physical work. It depends on so many things: complexity of design, materials, how many items I make at the same time with similar basic characteristics. For example when I sew book blocks I sew more than one in same day; when I prepare cardboard or leather I do this for more journals at once. In this way I can save a lot of time.

Journals by Dragos Man

La Marelle Couture album

(More photos of this piece from start to finish here and  here .)

Journals by Dragos Man

Another La Marelle Couture album

(More photos of this piece here .)

Though your Etsy shop   has beautiful pieces, the special orders featured on your DeviantArt and Facebook sites are particularly incredible. What would you consider to be your most ornate piece?

It is not as important what piece was most ornate as much as what piece was most difficult to make. And for this La Marelle Couture albums, both of them, are on top. It all started from a few scrap vintage pieces that Marelle sent to me and a logo. All the rest was: “do what you think” and I had to make the albums to be similar to her style. Fortunately she is a wonderful woman and we had good communication in the process and the result is visible. We are good friends now and this says everything.

Other difficult orders were ” The Red Devil’s Flight Log ” and the ” Sleeping Beauty “, you can see them on my Facebook page.

Journals by Dragos Man

“Called and Chosen” journal

(More photos of this journal here .)

You’ve also done an impressive, and quite large,  violin display case . How different was that process from making journals and albums?

It is not a big difference. The principles are the same: first you have to think about the functional part, second about strength and third about design. The rest is just work.

Journals by Dragos Man

Vintage Violin Journal with violin peg as closure

(More of this journal here .)

Speaking of violins–they feature on several of your journals. As do ships and the death’s head. Can you talk a little about what each of those symbols mean to you–why you keep coming back to them?

Well, here you touched my sensitive chords. About the violin, as shape it is the most feminine instrument in the world. As sound it is the same, can be very tender or very hysterical, depending on the hands that touch it. And as women, she cannot develop her beauty alone, she needs a pair, the arch. You can say I never put the arch on the covers of journals… I make the violins, the arches are the responsibility of writers.

About the ships and skulls… we are what we used to read or listen to in our childhood and I was in love with the books of Jules Verne, Jean Bart, Herman Melville, Jack London etc and as teenager I loved rock music. And I still love those books and that kind of music.

Journals by Dragos Man

Pirate Journal with Slipcase

(More photos here . Etsy listing here .)

You mentioned liking rock music–do you listen to music when you’re making journals?

Yes, often, and I choose the music regarding the kind of work that I’m doing at the moment, it is a good source of inspiration.

Journals by Dragos Man

My Fair Lady Journal

(See more photos of this journal here .)

Your pieces have an old world feel about them–as though they were meant to be used by people who’d never heard of the internet or even electricity. You don’t use modern methods, either, why did you make that decision?

Most of my tools are hand tools, but for some of them I use a modern advantage, like electricity, for generating heat. I also use a computer for some calculations, for choosing fonts or even for some design parts. I use that little help from technology for saving time and energy. It is the same reason like why you don’t use a hot coal heating system when you’re ironing shirts–you use electricity.

Journals by Dragos Man

Sapphire Green Journal

(More photos of this journal here . Perfect for the Slytherin in your life.)

Do you have a favourite type of tool to use or journal to make? In terms of steampunk or Victorian or Medieval, etc?

I like any hand tool, I cannot choose a favorite one or another. My favorite is the one that I need now. My favorite kind of journals are those that have a story behind, at least in my mind. In terms of Steampunk, Medieval etc, I like them all equally, it really depends on my state of mind.

Journals by Dragos Man

The largest photo album. Ever.

(More photos of this massive beauty here .)

What part of the journal-making process do you enjoy most?

Every part. When I feel inspired I enjoy the documenting and designing part and experimenting with new things, methods of work etc. And sometimes I am too lazy to think about new things so I prefer the routine part of work like sewing, preparing materials etc. And this is what I consider a healthy way to work: not to adapt my mood to the work I have to do, but to make the work that I feel right for the moment. In this way I enjoy every moment at work.

Well it certainly shows that you enjoy every second. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to seeing more of your work.

For more of Dragos’ work check out:

Dragos Man’s Facebook Page

His DeviantArt Site: The Book Whisperer

Most importantly you can place an order on his Etsy shop: Dragosh

You can also follow him on Twitter: @Dragosh_Man

He also has a personal blog if you’d like to see more of his work and learn stories behind some of the journals.

Jul
11
2014

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

by V. L. Craven

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

S. is the name of the book that you purchase, which is in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped. The book in the slipcase, however, is titled The Ship of Theseus and is purportedly by ‘V.M. Straka’. It looks like a library book from the 50s or 60s completely with stamps and the paper even looks properly aged. A friend of mine (dragornaked89) pointed out the book doesn’t smell old, though, so it wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was still a marvel in printing. (Particularly for $35US.)

Part of the mind-bogglingness of the book is attention to detail. There’s a conversation being carried out in the margins between two university students—a male and a female. The book is left in the library for the other to pick up and leave further comments on both what they’re reading and what’s going on in their lives. The book is read three times by the characters (you only read it once) and it’s easy to tell by the handwriting and pen or pencil used which pass you’re reading. (It sounds complicated but I promise it’s not.)

And there are all sorts of bits and bobs between the pages—photographs and letters and hand-drawn maps on napkins and postcards that only add to the realism. Pro tip: I found the code wheel that was meant to be used right from the start near the end of my reading—it had got stuck to the inside of the back cover so I didn’t get to play along with some of the code-breaking. Check the inside of your back cover.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

It’s that round thing. It was hiding from me.

The book, The Ship of Theseus reminds me of Nabokov in a way. That story is interesting on its own—a sort of nowhere but possibly European dream-state novel. I would like to discuss it specifically with anyone who’s read the book. I have some ideas of what certain elements represented but I’d like to discuss it with other people.

The overarching theme of the entire work is the question of identity and what it is—what defines us. This is embodied in S., who has amnesia and is trying to figure out who is he, much like the students—an undergrad nearly finished with a degree she took to make her parents happy but now doesn’t know what to do with her life; and a grad student studying Straka whose work has been taken from him, leaving him with nothing to show for his years of scholarship. Then V.M. Straka may or may not be a real person but whomever or whatever it was that wrote several incredible books still made a huge contribution to the world of literature—so does it matter if he was real?

Jul
10
2014

Russian Ark

by V. L. Craven

Russian Ark

At the beginning of Russian Ark , you wake up, somehow transported to … someplace unfamiliar. You discover you can speak Russian, though you’ve never spoken it before. Before you, you see a group of boisterous people alighting from horse-drawn carriages. They’re in elaborate dress on their way to some sort of party. And they cannot see or hear you. Perhaps you’ve died.

Then you are joined by someone else, visible only to you and dressed in clothes from a different century. ‘The European’ guides you through the rooms of this grand palace, commenting on various pieces of art. The palace, though never named, is the Hermitage Museum  and the European is meant to be the Marquis de Custine , who was quite the critic of Russian culture.

Each room or section of the film depicts a different era of Russian history, though not in chronological order. Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas II and his children all make appearances. It has the feel of a European dream-state novel–I often felt as though metaphors were sailing past my head, but then another piece of art would come into view and it wouldn’t matter.

The film itself is sumptuous. The art is beautiful, obviously, (there’s a wonderful 360 close up shot of The Three Graces by Canova) and the hundreds of costumes are breathtaking. Shot in a continuous 96 minute take and featuring over 2,000 actors and three orchestras, with an opera and an elaborate dance sequence it was no small technical feat, either. The documentary about the making of Russian Ark is called In One Breath (it’s available on the DVD, the first part of five is here  on You Tube) and it’s worth the watch to see how they did it.

The more you know about Russian history the more you’ll get out of the film (which I admittedly know very little) but it’s still gorgeous to look at and is probably the closest I’ll get to visiting the Hermitage. So I highly recommend it. 5/5.

Jun
20
2014

Lapham’s Quarterly: The Death Issue

by V. L. Craven

Laphams Quarterly: The Death Issue

When I heard the Fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly was to be called the Death Issue I knew I had to have it. It’s my introduction to the literary journal so I thought I’d put down my thoughts.

This being my first experience with any literary journal (and being an unemployed individual) my initial reaction was to the price ($16US) but it’s over 200 pages of high-quality material (both physically and content-wise) so after the shock subsided, I took it home.

It is truly a thing of beauty. The covers are that texture that’s become quite popular for electronics and book covers that feels like rubber and suede had a few too many drinks and decided to spend a freaky night together. (It’s called Soft Touch.) The paper is a heavy-weight stock, as well–it’s not the sort of periodical that finds its way to the recycling bin after it’s been read.

The layout is artful–nearly every page has a photograph or artwork concerning the issue’s theme. There are small poems and quotes tucked amongst larger pieces, as well. Longer poems get their own pages, like Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.

Besides poetry and quotes there are facts about death rituals from around the world, graphs and timelines about causes of death and numbers of deaths during various catastrophes and tables of resting places of some of the most famous people in history, amongst other things. It’s a macabre trivia-lover’s dream.

There are non-fiction pieces–letters, diary entries, interviews and excerpts from books. The section on How We Die was spectacular. Mary Roach’s excellent Stiff was excerpted. Anatole Broyard’s excerpt is heart-breaking. A piece on the funerary rites of the Rus  written by Ahmad ibn Fadlan in 922 was quite interesting.

And fiction, of course. The entirety of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ was included, much to my delight. There was an excerpt from Nabokov’s The Eye and Philip Roth had a darkly comic bit from  Sabbath’s Theatre .

There are also myths and tales from philosophers and histories meant to teach the reader about living wisely. A bit of Herodotus’ The Histories was particularly enlightening.

Entries are widely varied both in time (the earliest is a section of ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’ by Euripides written in 1200 BCE) and scope, as they come from many nations and cultures–some long extinct.

There is nothing negative to say about this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The selections come from people approaching death–some literally, some only in contemplation, some in the wake of losing someone close to them. And the contents reflect the myriad ways humanity responds to those situations. I highly recommend this one.

Jun
19
2014

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

by V. L. Craven

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

 

Carl Panzram  was arrested for murder and confessed to an impressive number of crimes including thousands of robberies, larcenies, arson, 22 murders and over 1,000 instances of sodomy on males. This was in 1928, when that level of depravity was simply unheard of. How could anyone be that evil?

This documentary is partially about Panzram himself, but it’s largely about the penal system, and its failings. Panzram got his start with the U.S. justice system very early on when he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School when he was twelve, where beatings to the point of bruises and blood were the rule of the day. He ran away on more than one occasion and was always punished with much vigour upon being caught.

Several experts weighed in–one of whom was Katherine Ramsland , a professor of forensics psychology. She pointed out that often serial killers will blame their behaviour on other people–Panzram blamed his poor treatment by his parents. Ramsland points out Panzram had several siblings who all turned out all right, intimating that their childhood could not have been so bad. Perhaps she wasn’t taking into account his brain trauma, which is a key part of the triumvirate of causes of sociopathy. (The other two being extreme abuse and mental illness.) Or that he was severely beaten and humiliated at school, which his siblings weren’t? Or that the siblings of serial killers don’t generally turn out to be serial killers themselves.

One of the other people consulted was artist  Joe Coleman , who is something of an expert on the man, having done an intricate painting about his life. Coleman’s pieces are always painted with a paintbrush with one hair. His contribution to the film was a highlight.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

A large portion of the documentary is about Panzram’s memoirs, which were written with the help of a guard in one particular prison. The guard brought pencils and paper and would take them away again once he had filled the pages. If either had been found out they both would had been in trouble. One more than the other, though, obviously.

One of the most striking (and disheartening) features is how little the penal system has changed in the decades since his imprisonment and death. People are put into a dehumanizing system and are then expected to behave like model citizens. Panzram’s thoughts on this are particularly eloquent.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was an interesting enough documentary about one of the U.S.’s first well-known and most brutal serial killers and the way the criminal justice system has (not) changed. I’d rate it 7/10.

May
28
2014

The Aeonian Academy

by V. L. Craven
The Aeonian Academy

Athena, Parthenon, Athens, Interior Model, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have begun writing a novel that will be absorbing much of my time. It has it’s own blog: The Aeonian Academy , which focuses on art, classics, mythology (chiefly Greco-Roman & Egyptian), nature and literature.

The site is more about being part of the world of the characters–it’s 99% images–than about the process of writing. I’ve always found it useful to immerse myself in the world of my books and that site is an excellent way to do so. The characters’ world is one of beauty and books (and tea) and so that is what you’ll find there. I hope you’ll consider joining us.

I will still post here, but posts will be sporadic and will no longer automatically be concerned solely with the macabre.

May
16
2014

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

by V. L. Craven

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

Taxidermy has always given me a touch of the screaming fantods. I’m fine with dead humans in whatever form. If Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds came anywhere in my vicinity I’d be first in line. But animals… eh, I don’t know. It’s always been a little too creepy for me. I suppose I hold animals in too high regard.

Then I became friends with a taxidermist and learned just how much they have to know to excel at what they do. It’s not just cutting open a dead animal, pulling out the insides, stuffing whathaveyou in it and sewing it back up. They have to know about biology, physiology, natural habitats and a host of other things. It’s boggling.

So when I heard about Melissa Milgrom’s  Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy I was excited to be able to learn more about the history and current state of the profession. It’s along the lines of Mary Roach in terms of conversational tone and covers taxidermy from the very beginning to its heyday, through its decline and up to the present day.

Some of the most interesting sections involved Damien Hirst and his taxidermist (he doesn’t do the actual preserving of sharks, cows and sheep), Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, and the differences between the US and UK taxidermy scenes. But the entire book was engaging, full of characters. Taxidermists may be solitary types, but they certainly aren’t boring.

Milgrom seems a bit more detached from her subject than Roach–more journalistic–and lends less of a sense of humour to things but it was still an enjoyable read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the subject.

May
09
2014

British Gothic Cinema

by V. L. Craven

British Gothic Cinema

Castles and howling wind (or is it wolves), lightning and thunder and perpetual murk. Capes and lace and bodices and everyone’s overwrought about everything all the time. There’s a candelabra on every other horizontal surface. You know the drill. It’s Gothic. And, if you’ve watched a certain type of film you’re probably picturing Hammer horror films.

British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw is about the influence of British filmmakers on horror cinema from the very beginning of film. Hammer gets a (deservedly) large portion of the book, but other companies like Amicus get their time, as well. Forshaw clearly knows his material and history–explaining how the censorship codes (blood on cleavage used to give people the vapours)–were slowly chipped away.

There are interviews with the some of the key players of the time, and honest reviews of performances by the staple players like Peter Cushing, Vincent Price (shipped in from the States to bring in the crowds) and Christopher Lee. No stone is left unturned–it’s an exhaustive work. Forshaw’s love for the subject shows.

This is an excellent companion to the BBC4 documentary A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss . Indeed, Gatiss is mentioned a few times in the end of the book, as are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. British Gothic Cinema, on the whole, is about horror cinema, and the British influence on it, though the earliest contributions were period Gothic pieces.

Very academic, I would recommend it only for people already interested in Gothic cinema or fans of film history, but for them it’s a must-read. There are some film spoilers for very well-known films, but if you’re a fan of the genre you’ve probably already seen them. (I didn’t find this to be a problem.) The biggest quibble I had were the typos, of which there were more than a few.

Overall, I did enjoy it, am glad I read it and wound up with a long list of films to watch.

[I was given a free copy of this to review, but was under no obligation to give a positive review.]

May
08
2014

The Act of Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Act of Killing

 

Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.

In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use  a lot of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.

Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.

When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.

Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone.  And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.

His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?

One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.

In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.

Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.

If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.

And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.

The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race.  How they ‘tamed’ the land.

If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.

If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.

I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.

May
05
2014

Great Minds Blog Tour

by V. L. Craven

I have been invited by Michael Hibbard  to join in the Great Minds blog tour of writer/bloggers. And thank you, Mr Hibbard for the kind words.

Before I answer the questions before me, I should like to tag Mr Paddy Kelly , author of Erotic Refugees. I’ve recently finished reading his latest manuscript that is, frankly, incredible–it will appeal hugely to fans of Neil Gaiman. It has that YA/adult cross-over appeal, as well. Very inventive and wonderful. We just need to find the man a publisher. He’ll be the next stop on the Great Mind’s blog tour, so be sure to check out his blog next Monday.

On to the questions:

1. What am I working on?

Just last week I started making notes for a novel about an woman who is invited to join a centuries-old intellectual organisation for people who do not excel at learning in a structured environment but who are encouraged to pursue their interests as fervently as they wish. But there are always prices to pay for getting what you most wish for.

 

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure I would say that it does–much of my writing is literary fiction along the lines of Patricia Highsmith. Where normal people appear to be going about their lives but things aren’t always what they seem. Or they’re pushed to the point of behaving like animals, which I think all people are capable of. The trick is to get the reader to identify with the characters completely throughout the situation to see how they would behave similarly. Very rarely do I write characters who start out evil, which is popular in media–people like black and white characters.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always had lots of things going on in my head–conversations, ideas, places, characters. I often write to play with those things–to see if I can make characters fit together. Or, like this novel I’m about to begin, it has several characters from different stories that either didn’t quite work or I didn’t start yet and it has two different organisations I’ve had ideas about for years. Suddenly, very recently, all of these things have coalesced and it’s so obvious they belong together. I feel like I’m about to bring all of these people into a room and have them do a read-through together like a play.

4. How does my writing process work?

Carrying on from the previous question, I think about characters and situations a great deal–whatever presents itself–but I’ve always had loads of imaginary friends. So I live with all of these invisible people talking around me and I listen to them and get to know them and eventually I’ll have an idea for a story they could be involved in. It always starts with the characters.

I make notes about plot, and characters–physical attributes and such. Then when I start writing I often write dialogue first, because my characters talk a lot. I write it like a play. Character One: whatever they say. Character Two: response, etc. Then I fill in their actions during the conversation. And work outward from there to descriptions and those sorts of things.

This particular novel is going to be interesting because it’s going to have a bunch of characters I’ve known for years but who’ve never ‘met’ each other. I did theatre for years growing up so writing has often felt like directing an improv group. I don’t tell them what to say or what to do–I just say, ‘This is where we’re starting and this is what needs to have happened by the end of the scene.’ And see what they do.

I suppose in response to the previous question–I write because I want to see what my characters are going to do. Readers probably think writers know exactly what’s going to happen, and writers do, to some degree, but I don’t know how these people, who are very much fully-formed people to me, are going to go about it. Or what is going to come out of their mouths.

Apr
24
2014

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

by V. L. Craven

Countess Erzsebet Bathory  (1560-1614) is remembered by popular culture as the female version of Vlad the Impaler–a feminine Dracula. She’s thought to have tortured and bled servant girls and maidens from her lands in order to bathe in their blood in order to remain young and beautiful. Apparently it’s not as straightforward as all that.

In 2008 and 2009 there were films made about the Countess that take slightly different views on the matter.

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

Bathory was the first of the two films–released in 2008 and starred Anna Friel. The Countess was released in 2009 and starred Julie Delphy (who also directed), as well as William Hurt.

Both are narrated by men. Bathory is narrated by someone who titles himself a ‘fool’ and The Countess by her lover, Istvan Thurzo, and the son of her greatest enemy, Gygory Thurzo (Hurt). They both admit that history is written by the winners, in this case, the people who sealed Erzsebet’s fate.

Bathory begins with Erzsebet’s betrothal to Ferenc Nadasdy,  the son of another family for political reasons at 8 or 9 [Wikipedia says this happened when she was 12] . She is portrayed as knowing nothing about sex–asking her new husband how it was supposed to work.

Likewise, The Countess begins at the very start of Erzsebet’s life and betrothal to Ferenc, but it is at her christening, when Nadasdy is a young boy that this is shown as happening. In this film she is knowledgeable about sex–sleeping with a peasant and bearing a child before her marriage at 15, which is taken away from her.


Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

In Bathory, Erzsebet takes a lover–an artist–while she’s still married. In The Countess, she doesn’t take a lover (the aforementioned Istvan Thurzo, played by Daniel Bruhl) until after her husband has died. Thurzo is much younger than she is and this is when she begins to obsess about her looks.

In Bathory, after Erzsebet is accidentally poisoned she is saved by a woman who is said to be a witch, Darvulia (Deana Horváthová). In The Countess the character is portrayed as much younger and as a much dearer friend and companion, where she’s played by Anamaria Marinca. In the former film the character doesn’t come into Erzsebet’s life until later on, but in the latter film, she’s been in her life from very early on. They also meet drastically different ends.

Both films agree that there was a great deal of political motivation behind the accusations levelled at Erzsebet–the King owed her a great deal of money for one–but we’ll probably never know just how many peasant girls were tortured and killed.

Bathory painted Erzsebet in a much more sympathetic light. It felt like more of a historical drama than anything else. There wasn’t much blood shown but our woman was certainly not portrayed as a kind and loving saint either. It was a bit slow-moving. I’d recommend it for people interested in Erzsebet Bathory or Hungary during the 17th century, but it would probably bore people who were looking for something titillating. There is a rape scene near the beginning of the film, as a trigger warning. It’s brief and not graphic, but it’s there.

The Countess was closer to what most people have heard about Countess Bathory. There is definitely more blood and torture shown (but not even up to standard horror film levels though there is one bit that’s wince-worthy). Delphy’s interpretation is interesting because though this version is much more sadistic she still has a human side. She could have played the character as a two-dimensional, cold-blooded lunatic, but she didn’t. This one I would recommend for people interested in non-stereotypical psychopaths, along with those who like period dramas, Bathory herself, etc.

Apr
20
2014

Happy 4th Anniversary

by V. L. Craven

Today is the fourth anniversary of this blog.

This will be the 588th post. And there are 236 pages.

It’s gone through some changes over the last four years, but it’s found its niche now and I’m looking forward to the next fourth years.

As a reward for my followers, my tattoos:

Happy 4th Anniversary

Poe, corvids and Tim Burton homage.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

A logo from an academic organisation in my writing. The motto means ‘Learn so that you may live.’

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Tree cover-up tattoo including an owl and blood moon.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

An ouroboros. A symbol of self-reflexivity.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Alchemy symbols from the Middle Ages. From top Arsenic, Sulfuric Acid/Vitriol, Antimony.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Brimstone/Sulfur alchemy symbol.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

The Sigil of Astaroth, Crown Prince of Hell.

 

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