::Literate Blather::
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Essay: Fixing our Reading Problem
It’s easy for me to climb up on my rickety soapbox, point my index finger to the sky, and decry the results of a National Endowment for the Arts study that found that Americans are reading less than ever before.

That’s because I read a lot – about 40 to 50 books a year; mostly novels, but a fair amount of non-fiction, poetry, and even the occasional graphic novel.

I love reading. In fact, I can’t imagine my life without it. I’m always reading a book (and sometime two). My quiet, but voracious addiction to reading gets me in trouble with my wife (especially when I bring home piles of gloriously new tomes). I can’t tell you how many boxes of books are stacked in my basement.

The NEA study called "To Read or Not to Read" (a play on the title to Hemingway’s “To Have or Have Not”?) found:

  • Fifty-two percent of American between 18 and 24 read a book voluntarily in 2002. Down 7 percent since 1992.
  • Money spent buying books dropped 14 percent in the 10 years between 1985 to 2005.
  • Only 31 percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree were proficient in reading prose. Down from 40 percent in 1992.
  • The number of 17-year-olds who never or hardly ever read a book has doubled since the late 1990s.
  • Seventy-two percent of employers found high school graduates “deficient” in writing in English.

NEA chairman Dana Gioia told the Associated Press: “Reading creates people who are more active by any measure. People who don't read, who spend more of their time watching TV or on the Internet, playing video games, seem to be significantly more passive.” She called the decline in reading “perhaps the most important socio-economic issue in the United States.”

It’s easy to blame the Internet, video games, and movies. Our multi-tasking society – filled with too many mobile phones, Blackberries, and PlayStations – makes it difficult to find a quiet hour to sit down in a comfortable chair and read a good book. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

But that’s not the reality. We do have the time. Movie watching and TV consumption is at all time highs. People spend hours a day browsing the Web and playing video games. The reality is that we have chosen as a society not to read books.

The decline in reading isn’t just a problem for booksellers and authors. It’s a problem for America’s competitive place in the global economy. Reading comprehension and writing skills are crucial skills for corporate and political leadership.

So how do we fix it?

Here’s a radical thought: make reading fun. There’s a reason why teenagers flocked to the Harry Potter novels – they were a blast to read. J.K. Rowling filled her stories with magic, adventure, and fantastic creatures. What’s not to like (unless, of course, you run a Catholic school)?

The problem begins in ninth grade English class when hordes of 13 and 14 year olds are subjected to Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Homer, and Mark Twain. Don’t get me wrong – Dickens and et al are at the dizzying heights of literature, but asking beginners to start at the top is a ridiculous proposition.

When we’re teaching kids to play baseball we don’t throw them on the playing field to test their skills against the 2007 Red Sox. When we’re teaching a child a draw, we start with stick figures and easy shapes and don’t force them to reproduce the Mona Lisa. It is the same with science and mathematics – first the basics and then increase the difficulty.

So is it fair to ask teenagers to read “Moby Dick” or “The Sound and the Fury” in high school?

Of course not.

These works are too challenging – confounding and difficult even for college students and academics (although delightfully worth the effort). The goal of high school English should be to instill a love of reading and writing – and then move on to the more challenging aspects of literature.

Why not start with simpler books – and books that relate more to teenagers and what they’re interested in? How about authors like J.R.R. Tolkien (“Lord of the Rings”) Stephen King (“The Dead Zone”), Margaret Atwood (“A Handmaiden’s Tale”), Orson Scott Card (“Ender’s Game”), John Irving (“A Prayer for Owen Meany”), Jack Kerouac (“On the Road”), and Anne Rice (“The Interview with the Vampire”)?

There are dozens of other authors that write outstanding, contemporary novels that are more accessible to young people. Remember the goal is to get teenagers to enjoy reading first. Once they discover the magic of reading – the absolute delight of it – then we introduce the complexities and challenges of the classics.

Read our essay about mowing the lawn here

Read our essay about the death of newspapers here

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007
5 Questions About: The Pilgrims

An Interview With Carolyn Freeman, Research Manager at Plimoth Plantation

(DaRK PaRTY still has turkey leftovers in the refrigerator and we’re still trying to lose the 10 pounds we gained gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving. What better way to celebrate the Thanksgiving season than to talk with Carolyn Freeman Travers, the research manager at Plimoth Plantation? Carolyn grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts and like many of her peers had a summer job working at the plantation museum in costume. Since 1981, she has worked at Plimoth Plantation's Research Department, for the last few years as Research Manager. She wanted to be sure we understood that the word “pilgrim” as many meanings. “The term Pilgrims can have several meanings depending on circumstances and its use therefore can be confusing,” she told us. “I will use Separatist for the religious group that separated from the Church of England; and Plymouth colonists for those people of whatever religious belief that came over aboard the Mayflower.”)

DaRK PaRTY: After fleeing religious persecution in England for the Netherlands, why did the Pilgrims decide to leave the relative peace and prosperity of Leiden for the great unknowns of the New World?

Carolyn: In 1607 and 1608, Separatists from the Scrooby area of Nottinghamshire fled England for the more tolerant Netherlands, settling first in Amsterdam, where religious dissention among the English living there drove them a year later to Leiden. In that much smaller city, it was harder for them to get enough employment to make a living, but much more peaceful.

After living there for 11 or 12 years, the English Separatists began to look for a new place to live. They had a number of reasons; chief of which was the nearing end of the Twelve Years' Truce between the Dutch and the Spanish, set to occur in 1621.

William Bradford in his history of Plymouth Colony gave several other reasons. The poverty most of them lived in was discouraging other English from joining them, and the hard work was making them old before their time. Their children were either bowed down with the work they were doing or assimilating into the Dutch culture. They also wanted to bring Christianity to the remote parts of the world. All of these factors combined to cause some, although less than half, of the Separatists in Leiden to emigrate, and they, with their investors, eventually got a patent from the Virginia Company.

DP: When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth they wrote the Mayflower Compact, which has been called the precursor to the U.S. Constitution. What was the Mayflower Compact and how important was it?

Carolyn: The Mayflower Compact, or combination as the colonists called it, was an interim agreement to stick together and obey the laws of England. The colonists' original patent giving them permission to settle in America was for territory in the north parts of Virginia, the boundary of which was roughly the mouth of the Hudson River.

By landing in New England instead, they lost their legal right to settle as a company. Shortly before reaching shore, some on board were planning to "use their own liberty" since the patent from the Virginia Company would be void. The compact bound them into a civil body politic, giving them the power to enact such laws as necessary and promising due obedience to same.

After the Mayflower returned to England in May, the colony's English investors obtained a new patent from the newly-formed Council for New England on June 1, 1621. This second patent was sent to Plymouth Colony aboard the Fortune which arrived on November 11, 1621. This document superseded the combination drawn up a year earlier. The second patent survived and is the collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth; what became of the Compact is unknown.

DP: During their first New England winter the Pilgrims suffered grave causalities. What was the cause of the hardship?

Carolyn: The two primary sources which describe conditions the first winter after their arrival both blamed the long voyage, wet and cold conditions, and lack of housing for the sicknesses which ultimately resulted in the deaths of almost half of the colonists.

The monotonous shipboard diet with its lack of fruit and vegetables resulted in scurvy or near scurvy for the colonists, and there was little by way of fresh food available after landing. That, coupled with the wet and cold conditions they faced those first few months, resulted in a "general sickness," very likely pneumonia or something similar, which took the lives of almost 50 of the 102 colonists.

Bradford in his history gave this description: "But that which was so sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months half of their company dyed, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and the (terrible) condition had brought upon them; so as there died sometimes two or three of a day in the aforesaid time; that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained." (Editor’s note: translated from old English).

“Mourt's Relation” referred to the distance that the passengers had to wade - three-quarters of a mile to get to shore while the Mayflower was at Provincetown, resulting in coughs and colds: "oftentimes they waded to the middle of the thigh, and often to the knees to go and come from land... it brought to the most, if not to all, coughs and colds, the weather proving suddenly cold and stormy, which afterwards turned to the scurvy, whereof many died."

DP: Miles Standish is often romanticized in his role as military leader of the Pilgrims. However, by some accounts he could be a mercurial and vicious man. What is your impression of Captain Standish?

Carolyn: I would call Myles Standish martial rather than mercurial. He had been trained as a soldier in the Netherlands, apparently stationed in Leiden or the surrounding area. He had become acquainted with the Separatists in Leiden, including their pastor John Robinson, and was hired to come to the colony and oversee their military affairs. He was in charge of two of the three exploring expeditions on Cape Cod in 1620, later organizing and training the colony's militia.

Governor Bradford in his description of the first winter singled out Standish as one of the few healthy persons who "to their great commendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dried them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them; in a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren." (Editor’s note: translated from old English).

Bradford's words portray a caring man. However, in his dealings with Natives perceived as a threat to the colony, Standish definitely believed in striking hard. The nearby colony of Wessagusset (present-day Weymouth) had aggravated the local Massachusett people to the point of attack. Knowing that the English colonists of Plymouth would retaliate, they planned to attack Plymouth as well. Learning of the plan, the Plymouth government ordered Standish to take some men to Wessagusset and attack first, specifying that he was to bring back the head of the leader, Wituwamet, "that he might be a warning and terror to all of that disposition."

The story can be read in colonist Edward Winslow's “Good News from New England,” but briefly, Standish and his men killed three men, including Wituwamet, and hanged another. Three others were killed elsewhere. Pastor Robinson was distressed at the news, and wrote that [killing] one or two principals should have been enough. He described Standish as "a man humble and meek amongst you, and towards all in ordinary course," but "there may be wanting that tenderness of the life of man (made after Gods image) which is met." This seems to me to sum up Standish's character.

DP: What was the first Thanksgiving really like and what is the average person's biggest misconception about it?

Carolyn: The event popularly known as the "First Thanksgiving" was in reality a traditional English harvest festival, lasting several days, involving people outside of the church, and including feasting and sports. A Day of Thanksgiving in the Separatist faith was essentially another Sabbath, spent primarily in church and as likely to be a fast as a feast.

The only description of the event comes from a letter. Colonist Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England, "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

I don't think I could pick out the biggest misconception. It wasn't a first - there had been thanksgiving services held by other Europeans prior to 1620 and Native peoples had been giving thanks in special ceremonies for thousands of years prior to their arrival. As I said above, it wasn't a day of Thanksgiving by their definition, although Winslow's description depicted an event much like what the American holiday became. It is also surprising to people how little is known - not the date, only some of the participants, very little of the menu and none of the logistics.

Read our 5 Questions About interview on the Great War here

Read our 5 Questions About interview about happiness here

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Under God's Right Arm: Christma$ a$ a Chri$tian
By Rev. Colson Crosslick

I often hear Christians complain about the alleged “commercialization” of Christmas – as if giving gifts to your loved ones was some kind of high crime. These ridiculous complaints are usually accompanied by a pining for a simpler Christmas – one based on goodwill, friendship, and family.

Forgive me for rolling my eyes in utter disgust.

Christians obviously forget that Christmas marks the birthday of Jesus Christ and that on this remarkable day he was visited by the Three Kings (also called the Maji) who were bearing gifts! To set the record straight: here is the passage from Matthew 2:10-11

“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

As you can see the Maji honored Jesus by delivering to him a stack of goodies (myrrh, by the way, is a fancy way of saying “perfume”). Why? Because it was his birthday and who goes to a birthday party without a gift? A rude person for one (or Nathan Lane)!

It is unfortunate that recently many Christians have been conned by the far radical leftwing of the Democratic Party into believing that Christmas has become a day of crass commercialization and materialism.

Little do they realize is that it was always so!

If you are familiar with the tale of Jesus’ birth as related in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke then you would know that gift giving is a crucial component of this most Christian of holidays. Giving a gift to a loved one on Christmas is a traditional way to celebrate the holiday – it isn’t being greedy or commercial. It’s being Christian.

Was the baby Jesus being a greedy pig for accepting the wonderfully scented perfume from the Three Kings? Of course not! He happily accepted the gift and was probably the best smelling kid in Bethlehem!

So it is curious that some Christian sects have fallen into this trap and spend too many cycles decrying Santa Claus and the idea of buying presents at Christmas. They obviously don’t know their history or their Bibles.

The pseudo-Christian cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most outspoken critics of Christmas and refuse to celebrate the holiday – which is akin to slapping the baby Jesus in the face! But then again Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that 144,000 people will be saved during the coming Armageddon (despite the fact that there are more than 16 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide – so there’s going to be some mighty disappointed JWs when the end of days comes!).

There’s another reason to buy gifts at Christmas as well – and that doesn’t have anything to do with being Christian, but has to do with being a red-blooded American. Retailers across this great country depend on Christmas sales to meet their numbers. A solid selling season during Christmas is what often puts these enormous conglomerates in the black for the year.

Do you want to see Wal-Mart go out of business? Do you want to see Best Buy with plywood across its display windows? Do you want Sears to move to another town? Well then you need to do your patriotic duty and buy, buy, buy during the Christmas season. This is what keeps our American economy humming along! We have the best stuff in the world – and this is part of what makes us a mighty nation.

So as you can see buying gifts for friends and family at Christmas makes you a stronger Christian by connecting you with the true spirit of Jesus and it also enables you to make the United States an economic powerhouse.

So don’t just buy your father one gift – buy him two! Buy stocking stuffers! Give gifts to the mailman and the babysitter (and your local pastor)! Forget about budgets and use your credit cards if necessary!

Remember – it is the Christian and American thing to do!

(The Rev. Colson Crosslick is pastor of the Pretty Good Shepherd Church in Ripsaw, Arkansas. He often goes over his credit card limit when buying lots and lots of Christmas gifts for his family and friends. He also writes the regularly appearing column Under God's Right Arm for DaRK PaRTY.)

Read the Good Reverend's thoughts about Halloween here

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Sunday, November 25, 2007
Literary Criticism: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

Summary: A fast-moving, deadly plague strikes humanity killing everything in its path. The disease ultimately mutates corpses into vampires that crave the flesh of the living. Unfortunately for the vampires, the only human survivor appears to be Robert Neville. Neville transforms his home into a fortress as he battles vampires and struggles to find food, water, and ammunition. Years later, Neville finally meets another human being – a woman named Ruth. But Ruth has a horrible secret. She is one of a group of people that have found a way to treat the plague so that it doesn’t kill them. These survivors are still vampires – but are alive. They are threatened by Neville and end up hunting him down. Caught by the “new” humans, Neville realizes that he will soon become a legend – just as vampires were legends to humans before the plague.

Analysis: Robert Matheson doesn’t put pen to paper much anymore. He can be forgiven. After all, Matheson is 81 years old. He’s become a living legend – a masterful author of science fiction and horror (Stephen King lists Matheson as one of his inspirations). He’s also a screenwriter that has been lucky enough to turn his own novels and short stories into films and TV programs (Matheson wrote for the “Twilight Zone” and “The Night Stalker”).

“I Am Legend” will soon be a Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith (it will be the third time the story has become a movie). As a result, “I Am Legend” is one of Matheson’s most famous stories, but it isn’t one of his best. “Duel,” “Hell House,” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” continue to vie for that title.

“I Am Legend” has several problems – one of them being that today’s readers are experiencing a vampire hangover. Vampire fiction has become its own genre of horror fiction (Amazon.com has more than 1,400 titles under vampire fiction – from the graphic novel “30 Days of Night” to Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian”).

None of this is Matheson’s fault, of course. He wrote “I Am Legend” in 1954 (when Anne Rice was 13 years old). At one time “I Am Legend” might have put a fresh face on vampire fiction – but no longer.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only problem with the novella. There are two other problems: scariness and the main character.

Matheson approaches “I Am Legend” like it is a scientific equation that needs solving. His main character, Robert Neville, spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating the true nature of the disease. He experiments on the vampires trying to discover how to cure it.

Some of this is interesting, but as a result we get less action. Neville, after all, is the sole survivor of a plague. Readers only get brief glimpses of the outside world, but most of the action takes place inside Neville’s head or inside his compound like house.

It’s a missed opportunity to explore a new world. As I read the novella, I wanted more information about Neville’s day-to-day existence. Where does he get his food? How does he keep his water running? What does he do during his spare time? Does he read? Does he play games? What amuses him?

None of these questions are answered. I also wanted more physical confrontations between Neville and the vampires (especially those who gather outside his house every evening). Where are the epic fights? We get to hear about some of them, but most take place in the past. We experience them as Neville thinks about them.

This lack of action means few chills. The scariest part of the book (again in the past) is when Neville buries his wife, Virginia, and then she comes home for a visit:

“Then his breath was snuffed. Someone was mumbling on the porch, muttering words he couldn’t hear. He braced himself; then, with a lunge, he jerked open the door and let the moonlight in.

He couldn’t even scream. He just stood rooted to the spot, staring dumbly at Virginia.

“Rob… ert,” she said.”

Robert Neville is a problem. Matheson’s main character spends too much time feeling sorry for himself – and drowning his sorrows in liquor. He’s a driven man, but one that isn’t very curious about his new world. He’s in denial – to the point of not observing the new reality developing around him.

This disengagement fails to keep the reader engage in the story. We want action! Horror! Chills and thrills! “I Am Legend” is too self-contained, too cerebral for its own good.

Matheson deserves to be read. He’s an excellent writer of genre fiction, but “I Am Legend” isn’t up to his own standards. Hopefully, the new movie will be better.

Read our literary criticism of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

Read our literary criticism of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

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Friday, November 16, 2007
5 Questions About: Charles Bukowski

An Interview With Linda King

(When DaRK PaRTY is drunk, we like indulging in Charles Bukowski poetry. Bukowski, of course, is the Literary King of Skidrow and the author of several novels and volumes of poetry. This is our second “5 Questions About” feature on him. We recently became cyber-acquainted with Linda King, who had an on-again/off-again relationship with Buk. In Buk’s novel “Women,” Linda is the girlfriend who tries to run him over with a car. “Stormy” is one way to describe their relationship. She has spent the last few years writing a memoir of her time with Buk called “Loving and Hating Charles B
ukowski.” She recently agreed to answer a few of our questions.)

DaRK PaRTY: What were your first impressions of Bukowski?

Linda: I met Bukowski at the end of 1969 and did a portrait sculpture of him during the first couple of months of 1970. We were a fighting couple for the next five years. We lived together for about eight months in 1972, I think it was. He moved out at my request after I caught him seeing other women.

We split that summer and when I got back to my house he asked me if I still wanted him to move and I said, “Yes.” We went on seeing each other for another couple of years until I moved to Phoenix in 1975.

DP: Time magazine once referred to Bukowski as “the laureate of American lowlife.” He seemed to cultivate a reputation as a hard drinking tough guy. Is he misunderstood? How would your describe Bukowski’s personality?

Linda: Bukowski worked hard to get his reputation as king of the lowlife writers. I do think he deserves that title. He might have stole a few stories and made himself the lead man when he wasn't, but still he was able to recognize a good lowlife story and get it told. I do think he lived the life he writes about, in fact, he was living on De Longpre Avenue (East Hollywood) when I met him, which is a good example. In fact, I lived in #3 at De Longpre for a short time when I couldn't find a place to rent with my two kids and dog. If you know the McArthur Park area, apartments are even more run down and lowlife where he used to live.

DP: The cult of literary celebrity keeps increasing around Bukowski. He's hotter than ever with bands like Pearl Jam singing about him and Hollywood making his novels into movies. Why do you think his work remains so popular -- especially among artists?

Linda: His work remains popular because there is no one like him. He's a great writer who is not only interesting and funny, he writing flows and is so simple that anyone can understand it. He tells about
life like it is with no frills or untruth and people who read his work recognize this as being very powerful.

I think they are thankful that someone finally said it like it is, rather it's in the work places or anywhere else. He writes about what they have experienced and feel. Even though he kept people way, he shared his life and his thoughts...all the time in his poetry and stories.

DP: What Bukowski novel do you think is his best and why? And what poem do you think best captures his talent?

Linda: I love some of the poetry in “Mockingbird Wish Me Luck,’ which was written when I was with Bukowski, the good times when we were in love. "Have You Ever Kissed a Panther" and "The Shower" to name a couple. I have some private poems that have probably never been read that are wonderful. When he wrote “Women” I thought he was out to trash me, and he did. A lot of the untruth about me in that book is taken for fact. I have always liked his poem "The Shoelace," which I published in “Purr.” He wrote so much it is hard to pick just one out of all of his writing that is the best.

DP: Bukowski died at age 73 in 1994. His gravestone marker says: "Don't Try." What do you think that means?

Linda: I think his grave marker that reads “Don't Try,” means... “I am such a good, tough writer that it is useless for you to try and be better. Just don't try.” He's laughing at anyone who thinks they can be better. And then it might have a touch of “When you write, don’t try, and if you try it will show in the writing, you have to let it flow.” I used to go with him to the fights downtown. He liked a good fight. If anyone writes the "fights" of life better Bukowski, he is going to have to be pretty tough.

Read a poem about Buk by the nephew of Linda King here

Read our 5 Questions About interview with Novelist Kim Harrison here

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Essay: Banning Harry

The pastor at the St. Joseph’s School in Wakefield, Mass. recently banned the Harry Potter books from the elementary school. According to a report in the Boston Globe, the Rev. Ron Baker removed the bestselling books by J.K. Rowling from the school library and banned them from school reading list

The reason?

The novels contain the themes of witchcraft and sorcery and are inappropriate for a Catholic school, according to Rev. Baker. In other words, the young wizard and his friends are in league with Satan.

Someone please alert Voldemort.

Amazingly, the Potter novels have been banned in 17 other states – so much so that the American Library Association has declared the Harry Potter books the “most challenged books of the 21st century.”

Rowling says her books are: "A prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry.” I suppose we should consider burning her at the stake as well. What kind of message is that for Catholic school children?

If the fairly innocuous Rowling can be banned from a Catholic school for “promoting” magic; one wonders if the good Rev. Baker has deigned to read other books i.e. the classics. Perhaps if he did, he would find plenty of books to toss onto the bonfire with Rowling’s Potter novels.

I could start with fairy tales like “Cinderella” (a fairy godmother using magic to transform a pumpkin and two mice into a carriage and a pair of steeds) or “Snow White” (which features a witch with a magic mirror and poisoned apples), but I won’t.

Let’s start with C.S. Lewis. As a Christian, Rev. Baker must be familiar with Lewis, the famed author and devout Christian, who authored “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Lewis, one of the leading promoters of Christianity in the 1940s and 1950s, called the first book of the Narnia series “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The audacity!

“The Chronicles of Narnia” are about a magical land filled with supernatural creatures – including fauns, centaurs, and talking animals. The most famous of Lewis’ talking animals is Aslan, a powerful, magic-welding lion. Aslan, as described by Lewis himself, is a literary Jesus Christ, the compassionate creator of Narnia.

In Rev. Baker’s world, I think we can safely assume that Lewis’ novels should be thrown into the flames with Harry Potter.

Now let’s look at that Homer character – the Greek poet who penned “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad.” If I’m not mistaken, the epic poem is filled with sorcery and, alas, false gods, including Zeus, Apollo, Hades, Athena, and Poseidon. Clearly, Homer is in the league with the devil and his minions.

Then there is Shakespeare. An anti-Christian zealot if there ever was one. There’s that pesky play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which features Amazons and fairies – magical creatures one and all! Oberson, the king of fairies, has fights with his wife that change weather patterns.

Should we burn Shakespeare’s play with the works of Homer, Lewis, and Rowling?

The message here is a simple one – and one that Rev. Baker should heed. Banning books is a slippery slope. When you attack literature, you attack all of it. When you censor one author – you censor all of them. Banning books is ugly business.

It’s also the last bastion of the ignorant. Ignorance. That’s really what Rev. Baker and his ilk should be banning.

Read our essay on how to fix the broken-down public school system

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Old Van Halen

35 Years Later the Old Stuff is Still the Best Stuff

Okay. Please let me get this off my chest.

Sammy Hagar sucks.

Wow. I feel better already.

I never could figure out how anyone could like that curly, haired fraud better than Diamond David Lee Roth. I mean they dress in the same girlie clothes, but Dave just pulled it off better (Sammy had that chubby kid look, if you know what I mean).

I was raised on Van Halen -- David Lee Roth Van Halen. The Van Halen that ripped into “Eruption” and funked out on “Jamie’s Cryin’.” The Van Halen that actually sold the album “Women and Children First” with a poster of Roth tied to a chain link fence. The Van Halen that had its logo etched on restroom stalls and on school notebooks.

Yeah, that Van Halen.

Sammy Hagar? He was the second-rate replacement who once crooned “I Can’t Drive 55.”

Van Halen was my rock n’ roll baby bottle. My first rock concert. I was a sophomore in high school and we piled into a station wagon for a road trip to Worcester, MA. The concert was being held in the two-year old Worcester Centrum, a concert hall with about 15,000 seats.

This was back in 1981 when the band was touring for its “Fair Warning” album. I drank two warm Budweisers and got rip roaring drunk. That night David Lee Roth screamed like a madman at the crowd.

At one point, Roth stopped the music and stalked to the edge of the stage. Sweat was pouring off his bare chest. Spittle flew from his lips as he shouted: “Some asshole threw something at me!”

The crowd fell into a frenzy.

“I see you, pal. I know who you are.”

Howls. Feet stomping. The rafters shaking.

“Don’t worry. I know how to get back at him. Oh, yeah. Buddy, I’m gonna fuck your girlfriend!”

The band broke into “Everybody Wants Some!!” I nearly passed out in the aisle; I was so hyped up on Van Halen (and that warm beer).

It’s been 35 years since the band formed in Pasadena, California. They have sold more than 80 million albums. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. They are one of the best selling rock bands in history.

So in honor of the greatest heavy-metal band of all time, DaRK PaRTY presents the best of old Van Halen.

Jamie’s Cryin’

From the self-titled debut album in 1978. A funked up rocker with a heavy bassline track. Alex Van Halen says this is his least favorite song, but he’s the drummer and who listens to them? The song is about a high school girl fond of one-night stands, but is upset that none of these hook-ups least to lasting love.

You Really Got Me

This may be one of the best cover songs of all time. It was originally recorded by the Kinks, but the Van Halen version gives them a special ownership. Van Halen used a talkbox after Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo to make it sound like a woman having intercourse. See the video above.

Runnin’ With the Devil

The first song on the first album. It starts with car horns blaring and just rips into Eddie’s guitar work. It really is a masterpiece of hard rock and the song that kicked off the band’s career.

You’re No Good

The only song from the band’s disappointing second album that includes “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls.” “You’re no Good” was the best rocker on this LP – which went down the road of Top 40 radio rather than rock and roll.

Everybody Wants Some!!

The album “Women and Children First” went back to the gritty heavy metal riffs of the first album. How can you not love the jungle drums and monkey howls of Roth that introduce this bad-boy song? This should have been the greatest Prom song ever.

Romeo Delight

“Romeo Delight” is an underrated gem. Eddie’s guitar rock is scorching. It’s about a rogue that likes to drink and score women and one could swear Roth could be singing about himself.

And the Cradle Will Rock

Another winner from “Women and Children First.” The line “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” has become infamous. This is the first song that Eddie ever played the keyboards on.

Dirty Movies

“Fair Warning” was the least successful album for Van Halen with Roth. The album was the band’s hardest rocking – with an edge. “Dirty Movies” was one of best songs on the album. It’s a savage guitar driven classic that never gets enough credit as one of the band’s better numbers.

Mean Street

This is the first song on “Fair Warning” and sets the tone perfectly. It’s about living in the poor, violent part of town and the song captures that raw, gritty feeling with Eddie’s driving guitar riffs.


This song is infamous for the line: “Come on, Dave, give me a break.” It was uttered by the sound engineer and the band liked it so much that it made the final cut. Another freight train of a song off the “Fair Warning” album.

Where Have All the Good Times Gone

“Diver Down” sold better than “Fair Warning” but it isn’t as good. In fact, it may be the worst album with Roth. But this Kink’s remake is rollicking good fun.

Hot For Teacher

“1984” was the last album with Roth and you could sense the shift in direction as the band went in a more pop rock direction with many of the songs. But “Hot for Teacher” was the exception – a brilliant guitar number by Eddie with lyrics by Roth about wanting to have sex with your teacher (unsuccessfully banned by several teachers’ unions).

Read our tribute to Led Zeppelin here

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Sunday, November 11, 2007
Farewell, Lord Mailer

“The Executioner’s Song” (1979) remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. The book – a “real life novel” by Norman Mailer – depicts the events leading up to the execution of murderer Gary Gilmore in Utah. It is exhaustively researched, utterly fascinating account, and may be the greatest true crime book ever written – surpassing even Truman Capote’s magnificent “In Cold Blood” (1965).

The book won the pugnacious Mailer a Pulitzer Prize and solidified his status as the literary lion of American letters. The old lion died yesterday of kidney failure. He was 84 years old.

Mailer was an artist of extremes – willing to knock head with anyone (he was involved in many a fistfight in his day) and who boldly jumped from novelist, to movie maker, to non-fiction author to playwright to actor.

“The Executioner’s Song” leads a list of amazing books written by Mailer including “The Naked and the Dead” (1948), “An American Dream” (1965), and “The Armies of the Night” (1968). But Mailer also left behind a library of mediocre prose including “Barbary Shore” (1951), “The Prisoner of Sex” (1971), and “Ancient Evenings” (1983).

That is the paradox of Mailer. Consider this. Despite a literary career that spans nearly six decades, Mailer never created the iconic fictional character – the larger than life personae. While Hemingway has Nick Adams, F. Scott Fitzgerald Jay Gatsby, and John Updike Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Mailer has… well, no one.

As the Boston Globe astutely pointed out: “`Norman Mailer’ was Mr. Mailer's own most enduring creation: a roisterous, rebellious, shameless figure, at once seer and clown, man of letters and man of action, who sought in his writing to grab hold of very nearly all of contemporary American experience and make it his own.”

I have mixed feelings about Mailer’s work. I’m unabashedly an admirer of “The Executioner’s Song” and “The American Dream,” but I had a mixed (although a mostly positive) take on “The Naked and the Dead” (I found the point of view jumpy and the cast of characters rather cliché). “Tough Guys Don’t Dance” (1984) could have been better if written by Robert B. Parker and “The Gospel According to the Son” was so trite and unimaginative that I didn’t finish it.

Yet I’m a fan of Mailer. I was taken in by his “Norman Mailer” character. He was fearless, a courageous artist. A growling bear of a man who took the literary baton from Hemingway (who he admired). A self-appointed member of literary royalty.

While he had flaws – he also had moments of staggering genius. Those are the moments we will all miss. It’s been a sad year for literary giants – first Kurt Vonnegut and now Mailer.

So farewell, Lord Mailer. Sleep well.

And, dear reader, do yourself a favor when you’re in your local bookstore: Buy a copy of “The Executioner’s Song.”

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Thursday, November 08, 2007
Poem: Walking to Work, 5:42 a.m.

By Jessica Fox-Wilson

Streetlights dot the sidewalk,
pierce the dark sky like stars.

Salt, gravel and ice slide
me forward, unsteadily. I know

what is coming next:
eight feet, ten feet, twenty

of packed semi, buttressed
by sheets of plywood. I will hop

left-right-left-right, blowing
warm breath into my freezing

fingers, taste rubber work gloves
on my lips. I will not talk

too early, will not wear a back brace
over shirt, under coat, will not

breathe black exhaust fumes, will not
ask for help hoisting the oak armoire

on the lone two wheeler, while
guiding it safely inside. The only

conversation will be two unfunny
morning DJs cackling on the radio

and my internal counting of cardboard
boxes, minutes on my time sheet,

minutes until the sky burns blue
and I crawl tired, home.

(Jessica Fox-Wilson 30 year old working poet/writer for Minnesota. In between her job, hobby, husband, friends, she is trying desperately to create a working writing life. As she balances all of this, she realizes that she can’t be the only one attempting this tightrope act. She authors the blog 9 to 5 Poet to share her experiences.)

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007
5 Questions About: My Elves Are Different

An Interview with Cartoonist Stephen Wilson

(Stephen Wilson is funny. Really funny. It may be because he’s Australian, but most likely it’s because he’s the author of the underground Web comic My Elves Are Different. M.E.A.D. is bizarre and may be the first niche comic for the fantasy and science fiction crowd to really take off. It mixes the surreal with the inane – and always includes a pithy punch line. Technorati ranks Wilson’s blog dedicated to M.E.A.D. as the 381th most popular in the world. But don’t take Technorati’s word for it. Read the comic. Wilson “claims” to be a wannabe dilettante, but just can’t commit to it. He has another Web project devoted to Space Archaeology (don’t ask). During our interview, we got some great examples of Stephen’s wry sense of humor.)

DaRK PaRTY: What in god's name is "My Elves Are Different?"

Stephen: My Elves Are Different (M.E.A.D.) is a Web comic about the science fiction and fantasy genre scene. It's basically a way for me to vent my deranged sense of humor in a controlled environment. Most of the jokes come to me during conversations with friends who share my love of a good quip, or at least tolerate it.

DP: Give DaRK PaRTY readers the origin story -- how it started and why?

Stephen: It began when I idly tested an online comic strip generator. I was pleased with the result, and made some more, basically to entertain myself. I picked up some regular visitors among my online friends and began to get some links pointed in my direction. It's always a thrill to get a link from an author, when you've poked fun at them. You think authors are artists oblivious to the hoi polloi, but they know how to use Google and Technorati as much as anyone. Their attention just reinforces my behavior.

DP: Can you give us a quick rundown of the main characters and their personalities?

Stephen: The main characters are The Bowler-hatted Gentleman and Cholmondely Burnsides, basically a pair of bibliophile chums. T.B.H.G . is married, and is usually the more intellectual of the pair. We've seen his no-nonsense wife on a few occasions. There are some other characters whom I've toyed with: Earl Earl, a penitent medieval nobleman who is always getting into humorous misunderstandings; and Domus, M.D. a doctor who treats patients with fantastic maladies.

DP: You use the same drawing for each character over and over again. Why is that?

Stephen: Er, ahem, because I can't draw, and think that a lack of artistic ability should be no barrier to becoming a cartoonist. I could claim that there's some lofty philosophical justification for using antique clip art, but really there are two simple reasons: laziness, and the fact that it's the same characters in nearly every strip and all they do is talk. How much variation do you need in that context?

DP: You've developed a growing cult following for the strip -- any interest from comic syndicates? And
just how difficult is it to break into the business?

Stephen: No interest from comic syndicates ... and with good reason! I've referred to M.E.A.D. as a "highly irregular" Web comic, and a major part of that is because I don't want to commit to any kind of publication schedule. And probably couldn't anyway. As far as breaking into the business goes, I imagine it's quite hard if you write for a rather specialized audience. Having said that: the Web has made it easy for anyone to produce their own comics for free, so in that sense, it's as easy as breaking into busking.

Read our 5 Questions interview about Comic Books here

Read our posting on Maus -- 15 years after it was first published -- here

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