Thursday, June 23, 2011

Water for Elephants

At the moment, the Random Animal is on the road and surrounded by water in the air, in the ocean, and in nearby lakes and streams. Loons, herons, and warblers, but no elephants in the neighborhood.

However, in this blog's untimely fashion, I have just begun Sarah Gruen's novel, Water for Elephants. Many have already read the book AND experienced the movie, which is mostly about seeing the Twilight actor with some color in his cheeks.
The book is told from the dual perspectives of the main character, Jacob Jankowski, as as an old man parked in a facility for seniors, and as a young man unmoored by a family tragedy who joins a depression-era circus as a vet.
The book opens with what seems to be a murder scene, and while this novel doesn't quite have the literary panache of Lord of Misrule, the plot of star-crossed lovers and exotic creatures (some human, some not) is moving quickly.  In many scenes, the novel draws attention to helplessness and desperation--the helplessness of age, eccentricity, loneliness, job loss. There is the paralysis caused by “Jake”—a prohibition drink that had dangerous additives to make it unpalatable. But rather than discouraging people from drinking, Jake provided a passing high—and then lasting paralysis of the lower limbs or “jake leg.”
There is also the helplessness of animals whose powers and possibilities are kept repressed, caged, or beyond the animals’ realization . So far, the insights into human/animal relations are vividly depicted but not unusual. The circus animals are valued for the crowds they attract yet are generally abused by handlers--with the exception of a lovely heroine, a dwarf clown, and Jacob. And the elephant has just arrived on the scene, a refugee from another circus that went under. One of the most disconcerting revelations concerns the feeding of the big cats, the charismatic and dangerous lions, panthers, and tigers. They are not "hay-burners" and their "peaceful" presence requires the regular sacrifice of goats--or of horses or any other animal that is not greatly productive.  The question now becomes--what depths might be added to the love story of humans and the love story with the elephant.  More to come. . .

Friday, June 17, 2011

Emily Dickinson on Anthony Weiner

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Today we have a guest column on the now resigned Representative, Anthony Weiner. However, our guest was reluctant to appear on YouTube, but maybe she can be lured out in the future.
Weiner, the G-rated version

Emily Dickinson on Anthony Weiner: The VideoBlog Transcript

Hi I’m Em, Belle of Amherst and all, and I might as well open with the Death thing:

Because I could not stop for Death
As you can plainly see, 
The world wide web has granted Cy-
Ber Immortality.

I need never leave the house
when tweeting is so cool
Short and jerky, to the point,
So why write more when texting rules?

You’d think you could explain yourself in a few words with hyphens and J. But no, I find I have to talk about that media mess and “gotcha” questions. You’d think I gone galavanting to Boston, real busy Not Running for office, in a bus with the Constitution plastered over it. Of course, I’m all over the Constitution and that voting thing. Except I didn’t actually get to vote.  But you can, right now. Vote for the Biggest Cad:
1)      Arnold Schwarzenegger
2)      John Edwards
3)      Jimmy Carter because he only lusted in his heart and not on hackable social media.

Back to me. I need to correct some misapprehensions.
First, that I’m shy. Ha! So OVER that. “The Soul Selects her own Society / Then takes a pill / Xanax! Well shut the door!”
The other—I’m too weird to be published.  And fixated on Death. Come on—weird? That death thing and weird thing, it’s everywhere. It sells That whole Team Edward and Team Jacob – who cares? (Although I’d lean “Edward”—I like a look of Agony, I do.) 
And do I ever even mention zombies! Zombies eating birdies? Zombies eating little flowers and snaking in the grass? Actually, I kinda like that concept. Maybe I AM a zombie, because I keep thinking I heard a fly buzz when I died, or felt a Funeral in my Brain.  Or is it I like brains on little things with feathers, buzzing? Am I buzzed? Inebriate of air am I.
Oh, all that stuff about how I have eye problems and write funny. How I write is pad-perfect. Fits my device exactly—see? Always ahead of my time.
Next, all those complaints about wearing the same dress. I have another, it’s made of meat, but I loaned it to Lady Gaga. Who hasn’t gotten it back to me yet! It will be full of maggot holes—oh, is that the death thing again?
I knew Lady Gaga when she was just “gaga,” nothing. In fact she came up to me and said “I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody, too?” Then she said she wanted to be public like a frog. I would have told her about my agent, but my agent’s crap—only published about six of my things and they weren’t even the hottest.
And that spinster thing. There was somebody, but I tell you, all you single ladies,
If he liked it then he should have put a ring on it
If he liked it then he shoulda put a ring on it
Don't be mad once you see that he want it
If he liked it then he shoulda put a ring on it
Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh
 By the way, Beyonce, it’s not plagiarism if you’re the one who died first.
But what I really need to address is the Truth, and I won’t be slant about it. My reputation has been shredded, vaporized, dropped from cable. Mention my name and Glenn Beck cries. I know my inner gangsta sometimes raps, “Yo, did that Harebell loose her girdle/ to the Lover Bee.” I said HAREBELL not that other H word that doesn’t begin with an H.
Then the egg that broke the camel’s back, there’s been talk of me and a politician. His having power is a turn-on for, well, him I guess, and I can be hard to pin down, I can be elusive, I’ve  shut the door, turned to stone, a time or two. But when you’re hard to get like I am (the dead thing again), it can be a tease. As I’ve said before, and it’s on record, “success is counted sweetest / by those who ne’er succeed. / To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need.” Well, someone’s been sore on me, for sure. Me, I haven’t touched nobody or done nothin’. I’m a poet and I know it, so I’ll explain in verse. "Press release, please" (handed from off camera). "That’s the wrong one." Interns.  It’s like I have dead Interns.
Anyway, here goes:

This is my twitter to the World
That speaks untrue of me
I never twittered Anthony,
Weiner that he be.

His message not platonic,
As any nerd can see
All buffed and puffed and self-besotted.
“No Way” I touch his tree…

Wait, something on my pad. Beyonce unfriended me!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Lord of Misrule and Horse of the Year

Defying Gravity

Don't ask how, but I came across the recent headline "Horse of the Year is Eating for Two." I didn't know there was such a thing as "horse of the year"--the year 2010 and the mare Zenyatta, who has been profiled by such racing fanatics as 60 Minutes on CBS. The Giselle Bundchen supermodel of a horse, over 7 hands at the shoulder (5'9.5") and a svelte 1200 pounds, who brought in--and still brings in--millions. She did not win the Triple Crown (apparently didn't try) but won 19 races and in her last race, the 20th, came in second. She's got legs.
Looking at lovely Zenyatta, named after a Sting song, you could believe in fairy tales and innate nobility and the divinity-on-earth that is equus. Now with a website. News that Zenyatta's in foal creates a buzz similar to an announcement that Prince William and stylish Kate are expecting. (That is not a fact. I have no privy knowledge of the newest royal couple--just wanted to jumpstart a few heart rates.) Who wouldn't want the best for Zenyatta, and the stud whose name I forgot and is no doubt fast but less interesting.
There is, of course, the tragic side to horse racing. If Zenyatta is blessed in her matronly pasturage, others seemed cursed. 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized after state-of-the arts treatment could not alleviate suffering caused by a shattered leg. A race horse is so precisely bred and trained (in some views irresponsibly pushing the horse too far from her evolutionary template) that as with a space shuttle the slightest issue leads to ruin. Another supermodel filly, Eight Belles, was euthanized at the track after two ankles broke in the course of a race , all in front of cameras. As an ESPN writer notes, the track vet must be prepared for the worst and bear the emotional consequences.
AP Photo/ Brian Bohannon

These are dark omens of another world, one portrayed in Jaimy Gordon's novel, Lord of Misrule. The book could be called a 2010 dark-horse of the year, in the winner's circle with the National Book Award despite competition from other novels on which the media staked their bets, like Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (reviewed here in December).

I found Lord of Misrule slow out of the gate. And yes, the title is a horse's name, though this horse, a little like the famously difficult fictional animal, Moby Dick, is more of an unfathomable force. The setting for Gordon's novel is a gutter of a race track in the 1970s where "claiming races" are run. (The Man O'Wars and Zenyattas run in Stakes races.) Claiming races work something like trades in professional sports or being seeded in tennis; they keep the entries at about the same level since an owner wouldn't want to lose a really great horse to a claim out of a field of has-beens. In other words, two kinds of betting occur: the first on who crosses the finish line when; the second a secret bid just before the race to claim a horse that might be better than the one you entered. So an owner running a horse might go home with some money but no horse at all if the claiming didn't go his way.
The cast of characters, in all senses of the word, include the old African-American groom, Medicine Ed, the butch owner/trainer Deucey, the Jewish off-track influence Two-Tie (one bow tie for fashion, one for mourning), a petty gangster with the aspirational name of Bigg, a newcomer Tommy Hansel, christened the Young Fool, and his girlfriend and Ishmael of the book, Maggie. Before the term "magic realism" came about, there was the shape-shifting universe of horse racing--fortunes made and unmade in a lifetime and  90 seconds--and Maggie has been pulled into a dangerous romance with horses and with Tommy--s&m overtones with both. She seems to have a fairy-god father in remotely related Two-Tie, but that may not be enough to protect in a place where legitimacy and fair play have no mooring.
The horses are characters, too: Pelter of the long back and placid temperament; hyper-sensitive Little Spinoza with too much imagination, the strategic Mr. Boll Weevil, the massive "Mahdi," and the mysterious veteran Lord of Misrule. Suspense takes off when the races begin, and the plot pulls you in.
While Gordon, who has published several other books, is highly educated, she creates a realm where people are schooled otherwise and envision differently. She writes of Tommy that his concept of money is "notional." Savvy illiterate Ed thinks in a Mark Twain vernacular, as he sees a new horse delivered: "A van ride on race day did for many a horse, but this boy had rolled out the van as calm as that puddle yonder, for he felt good and didn't know nothing [. . .] with a chest like a car radiator." Baggy saggy Two-Tie thinks of his one close family member, a dog, that she "had superfluous IQ for her line of work, and inside all that free space in her brain she was completing a philosophy of the world wove together out of all the smells she had every smelled"; she was "history-minded." Ruled off the racetrack, Two-Tie misses that kind of close connection to the horses themselves, but finds condolence in his own philosophizing, for the briefest moment: he now has the distance to see "the whole world of half-mile racetracks and the people and animals that lived on them as one world, and not just a big, all-over-the-place, unseemly business. Of course horse racing was a business too, whatever else it might be, and in some ways he actually found it easier to keep his hand on the long strings if he didn't have to look up close at the valiant and tragic animals and the greedy conniving assholes, himself included, who took advantage of the horses' noble nature."
In this racing-noir, there are close escapes and no escapes. It is not a contemporary Black Beauty with a didactic focus on animal cruelty, though the book leaves not doubt that horses suffer. For the most part, I found Gordon's Lord of Misrule exciting, though you probably have to be a little in love with horses to find it consistently fascinating. A few qualifications--sometimes the track lingo felt contrived. Sex scenes between Tommy and Maggie were presented with a scatological roughness. Maybe it suited the characterizations and crude sex talk is an unspoken requirement for contemporary fiction; but I feel obliged to point that out for those considering class room use. I also struggled with the characterization of Tommy and tried the movie actor visualization. I could see Morgan Freeman, Hilary Swank, James Gandolfini, Kathy Bates in roles, but with Tommy I strained to come up with a pre-Jolie Brad Pitt--enticingly good looking, self-aware of a twisted vanity, and visionary in bad ways.  Maybe. The novel focuses more on flawed heroine Maggie, who might resemble the author herself in her 20s. Medicine Ed, who worked a lifetime to inure himself to treacherous sentiment, is taken aback by how horses would develop a playful give-and-take with Maggie, trusting her, teasingly chewing on her braids.  Maggie's no Jane Goodall, yet she brings out the strange seductiveness of track life and the possibilities of connection.
As for Zenyatta, she is one in a million. May all horses receive the care they deserve from us from the sin of their domestication.