Thursday, November 22, 2012

A clash of cultures

Our book club at the library read a delightful book last month: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. We all loved it, for numerous reasons, not least of which was the Major himself. To a large extent he's your rather stuffy, very old-fashioned British curmudgeon (who is at pains to remind people that "It's Major, actually," rather than Mr.), but who proves himself time and again a decent, kind person, and who evolves, in a positive and believable way, over the course of the book.

I was especially charmed by the love affair that develops between the Major and Mrs. Ali, the widowed Pakistani lady who runs the local bit-of-everything shop. It's nice to watch the unwinding of a believable, but still romantic, relationship between an elderly gentleman (he's 68 which, we folks in our 60s have to face, no longer qualifies as "middle-aged"), and an emphatically middle-aged lady. Especially appealing is the way it is made clear that both loved, and miss, their first spouses, and that their love for one another comes gradually, preceded first by respect, and liking. And yet, for all that, it includes a wonderfully exciting "escape" from the clutches of Mrs. Ali's very conservative relatives-by-marriage; the Major proves himself a true romantic hero, more or less despite himself.

Less believable is the relationship between Mrs. Ali's ultra-conservative nephew, and the free spirit he managed to get pregnant, despite his puritanical views. While you can see how he might have been attracted to the wild and saucy young woman, despite himself, what she could have seen in this rigid young man, fanatical in his devotion to his religion, is never made clear.  But the problems of the Muslim culture trying to cope with the larger British culture, and vice verse, certainly contribute to the interest of the story.

We also had trouble with the Major's son, who is so unrelentingly materialistic and opportunist, so thoughtless, that we had a hard time seeing how the kindly Major and, from the snips and bits readers get about her, his apparently very nice first wife, could have produced such a son. This led to an interesting discussion in the group about how you may do your darnedest by your children, but the result may still not be what you would have hoped. But what-ever disappointment one might feel that your child didn't grow up to be a successful doctor/lawyer/ Indian chief -- didn't seem to be able to figure out "what he wanted to be when he grew up," never quite managed to get that college degree, kept having to come home when he'd lost another job -- it would surely be much more distressing to realize your child was rude, selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others. Never having had children, I can't speak from experience, but it seems to me the latter situation would have me feeling much more the failure as a parent.

The group agreed that another of the things we liked about this book was simply the charming way it was written, how the author put things. A few examples:

As Mrs. Ali hesitates over mailing a letter to her relatives in the north of England, a letter she doesn't really want to send: "He held his breath as she stood for a moment, letter in hand, her head curved in thought. He had never imagined so clearly the consequences of mailing a letter -- the impossibility of retrieving it from the iron mouth of the box; the inevitability of its steady progress through the postal system; the passing from bag to bag and postman to postman, until a lone man in a van pulls up to the door and pushes a small pile through the letterbox. It seemed suddenly horrible that one's words could not be taken back, one's thought allowed none of the remediation of speaking face to face."

Or at an outrageous country hunt, that goes horribly awry: "A great splashing on the pond indicated that many ducks had made it through the barrage and were quarrelling over their options like politicians. In a matter of minutes, Morris would bang the oil can again and send them all aloft to repeat their suicidal mission."

When the Major presents two roses to Mrs. Ali, before they leave for the dinner dance which will also go horribly awry: "'Is one of those for Grace? I could put it in a vase for her.' He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule."

And I loved his thought on American television, while trying to shore up his courage to meet his son's new American girlfriend: "She would no doubt make his prior reticence out to be some sort of idiocy. Americans seemed to enjoy the sport of publicly humiliating one another. The occasional American sitcoms that came on TV were filled with childish fat men poking fun at others, all rolled eyeballs and metallic taped laughter."

Ain't it the truth.

All quotes from Simonson, Helen. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. New York: Random House, 2010. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wonder Woman Meets Spiderman

I just returned from my first comic con, i.e., Comic convention. My brother, the cartoonist Bob Camp, invited me to join him at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland this weekend, while he did his comic con thing. Bob attends these events, which take place all over the country, to make a little extra cash. He sits at his table prepared to draw sketches of Ren and Stimpy, the animated cartoon characters that made him rich and famous, or anyway moderately famous, back in the early '90s. It amazes me that people are still interested in that psychotic dog and incredibly stupid cat, but apparently the series developed a regular cult following, still going strong after all these years; for these people, Bob is a celebrity.

It also amazed me to sit and watch Bob whip out these sketches, while the people who were paying for them stood and watched his every move. And he assured me that the two or three or four requests an hour he was getting "was nothing" compared to some of the comic conventions, where he is drawing nonstop for six to seven hours. Incredible stamina, it seems to me, on top of the talent and concentration required to produce the sketches themselves.

Bob has done so many other things since Ren & Stimpy, which was, after all, twenty years ago; but this remains his biggest claim to fame, and is what gets him invited to these things.

I wandered around the room at one point, just to see what else was happening. There were a number of cartoonists like Bob, available for drawings on demand, as well as having examples of their work for sale, from poster-sized to post card sized, even printed on the front of T-shirts. A lot of the artwork was macabre to downright gruesome. But what there was much more of was merchandise. People selling everything from vintage comic books (lots of those, though Bob told me that at other conventions that aspect is huge), to toys, to comic-related collectables. There were also plenty of people strolling around in costumes representing favorite comic characters. The whole thing struck me as weird, but harmless.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the whole experience was the breakfast we had this morning with two of Bob's fellow artists. Interestingly, both of these guys know Bob from back in the days when he was drawing for Marvel Comics, in New York City, before he moved into animation. The inevitable "claim to fame" of one of them, Rick Parker, is that he produced all of the artwork for the comic book offshoot of the Bevis and Butthead T.V. cartoon. If any characters are less appealing than Ren & Stimpy it is surely Bevis and Butthead! And a lot of Rick's work these days I would have to put into the macabre-to-downright-gruesome category I mentioned above. And yet, Rick is an extremely nice fellow! It would seem he just has an...interest-ing...take on the world.

In fact, one of the things he said, and Mort Todd, the other fellow having breakfast with us, (claim to fame: Cracked Magazine, and more recently, Tales from the Crypt comic series) chimed in in agree-ment: when they were kids, their mothers were always asking them why they didn't draw pretty pictures, nice pictures. But pretty and nice just struck these guys as boring, uninteresting.

Though I'm glad to have experienced one -- and am especially glad to have had the opportunity to spend time with my brother, whom I see so rarely -- I can't say a comic convention is my kind of thing. But then, I've never been into comic books -- except for maybe Betty and Veronica, when I was about 10 (much too nice for Rick or Mort or brother Bob, I'm sure) -- nor cartoons, particularly. I enjoy animated features like Shrek or Ice Age (on which brother Bob worked) or The Lion King as much as the next middle-brow person, but the cartoon shows that appear on television just strike me as a total waste of my time. The Simpsons has never seemed anything but stupid to me, -- and I've never found stupid amusing -- and I've already indicated my feelings about Ren & Stimpy (though most of those show do have their amusing moments), Bevis and Butthead, and the macabre to downright gruesome stuff that seems to be so popular with many folk these days. But the people who produce these things really are all artists, creative people eager to make something, even if it's not nice, or pretty. More power to them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Here we go again

November 8th, the date of the first snow storm of the season, here in central Maine. We woke up to about two inches of the white stuff on the ground this morning. But the temperature had already climbed above freezing, so the sporadic precipitation had turned to rain. Indeed, at 10:45, when I was out there clearing the roof of my car, and the windshield, I was being pelted by raindrops. By the time I left work for home this afternoon, at 3:45, the snow had disappeared from all the streets, though it still lay on many lawns, with blades of grass peeking through.

Mainly what it was was cold, as it has been for the past couple of days. Overcast, and very windy, the wind out of the northeast. Yes, a good old-fashioned Nor'easter, which we don't really get all that often. But when the weather comes at us from that direction, in off the Atlantic, you'd better have on a good warm coat, a warm scarf around your neck, gloves on your hands. I did, as well as slacks and winter boots, but could still feel the cold.

Of course, farther south, in New York and New Jersey, they were dealing with the same kind of weather, while still in recovery mode from last week's Storm Sandy. People who had just recently gotten power back, found themselves without it again. We've been very lucky here in Maine; neither storm hit us that hard, or had anywhere near the repercussions.

I have to admit, I'm not eagerly anticipating winter weather. I've been here in Maine for only seven years, had to shovel out for only seven winters, but already it's beginning to seem old. Imagine those folks who have lived here all their lives -- 30, 60, 80 years! That's a powerful lot of shoveling...