Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Reading: "Vampire City" by Paul Féval

Happy Halloween! I usually make a point of reading some classic gothic/mystery/horror fiction in October or November, but this year, my choice was a little more bizarre than usual. I read Vampire City, by Paul Féval, after acquiring it from my friend Stuart at his annual book-giveaway some months ago. I hadn't heard of Féval (a 19th-century French pulp novelist) or this book until Stuart brought it to my attention – and I'm always intrigued by books that complicate my understanding of French literature and the history of fiction in general.

So just in time for the spooky holiday, here's my Goodreads review of Vampire City by Paul Féval.

Vampire City
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vampire City is an obscure work of horror-comedy-metafiction written in France circa 1870, and if that description doesn't pique your interest, what are you doing on Goodreads?

Paul Féval imagines Ann Radcliffe, the English Gothic novelist, running away from home on the morning of her wedding day to rescue two of her childhood friends, who have gotten caught up in the schemes of a nefarious vampire. Féval's vampires glow green at nighttime, have their own civilization based in Vampire City, and can duplicate themselves. It's a far cry from the typical, Bram-Stoker-influenced vampire – although the section where Ann and her companions rely upon a vampire's victim to guide them to Vampire City is reminiscent of the end of Dracula, when Mina uses her telepathic connection with Dracula to guide the heroes to his castle.

The villain's scheme is a bit confusing and all of the characters are one-dimensional, but the tongue-in-cheek narration is full of gems like "Knowing themselves to be guilty of impropriety, Ned and Corny kept their intention [to elope] hidden from their friends. Please do not think me capable of excusing in any degree something which is not done, but I feel bound to point out that they had to contend with an unscrupulous fraudulent bankrupt, a female living in sin, and a vampire. It has to be admitted that their situation was difficult."

Not necessarily a must-read, but pretty entertaining, and an excellent reminder that the 19th century was far weirder and funnier than we usually imagine it to be.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 20, 2013

I'm a Theater Widow @ SF Theater Pub Blog

While I've been busy this month with writing projects and the like, my boyfriend has been busy too, playing bass four nights a week for Custom Made Theatre's production of Next to Normal.

Thus, I've become a theater widow—something I never intended to be, considering that a few years ago I adopted an informal policy of not dating theater people.

In my latest piece for SF Theater Pub's blog, I write about my experience of theater-widowhood. Fortunately, it's coming to an end soon. I'll still be busy in November—the San Francisco Olympians Festival will take up most of my free time—but at least I'll be seeing the Olympians plays together with my boyfriend.

(This is all part of my campaign to make "theater widow" a more widely-known and widely used phrase, by the way.)

And if you've missed out on Next to Normal, there's still one more weekend to see this production!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Dreaming in French": the American girl in Paris

I started this blog about a month after I returned from studying abroad in Paris. The transition from living in one of the world's most beautiful cities, with its elegant and easily navigable Métro system, to living in a suburban subdivision, was not an easy one to make. I felt terribly bored, and terribly lonely, and burst with thoughts that I had no way of sharing with anybody. Thus, a blog was born. For this and for many other reasons, I definitely feel like my time in Paris marked and changed me as a person... yet perhaps not as much as it did for the three women discussed in the book Dreaming in French...

Dreaming in FrenchDreaming in French by Alice Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Dreaming in French" is more analytical and scholarly-minded than its romantic title would suggest. It's a study of how three important mid-century American women were shaped by spending time in Paris in their early twenties. The women are considered as individual personalities, but also as stand-ins for the different types of young women who tend to become attracted to French culture: Jacqueline Bouvier the aesthete, Susan Sontag the intellectual, and Angela Davis the revolutionary.

In the case of Bouvier, author Alice Kaplan does her best to sift the facts from the myths that have sprung up around this glamorous, Francophilic first lady. Still, I disagree with some of Kaplan's conclusions. She unearthed a French translation that Jackie made of an American pop song, and claims that it shows Jackie's special sensitivity to the poetry of the French language, but, in my opinion, it seems like a fairly literal and schoolgirlish translation job.

Of the three women, Susan Sontag kept the most extensive diaries and journals from her time in Paris. This is good, because it enables Kaplan to use Sontag's own words to tell her story, but it also made me wonder if I shouldn't have just read Sontag's journals (which have been published as "Reborn") instead.

I really didn't know anything about Angela Davis before reading this book, and I found her story fascinating. Kaplan makes a convincing case for how living in France awakened Davis' social consciousness; and then, how Davis became a cultural icon among French people (to a much greater extent than in the United States).

I myself spent a semester abroad in Paris (in 2007) and enjoyed reading about how the day-to-day experiences of these three illustrious women were similar to and different from my own. Still, I realize (and I think Kaplan does, too) that the profound effects that Paris can have on a young woman's psyche, may be too personal and intimate to be dredged up by an academic historian. Kaplan bases this book on primary-source documents: letters, diaries, newspapers, interviews, transcripts. But no primary source can convey the feeling of what it's like to ramble around the Latin Quarter, or sit down to dinner with a French host family, or, indeed, to dream in a foreign language.

View all my reviews

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Dangerous Drifting @ SF Theater Pub Blog

As you might have guessed from my infrequent postings here, I have been juggling a lot of theater-related commitments lately. During the month of September, I found myself scattered in at least four directions: completing my SF Olympians Festival scripts, writing for the Fringe Festival newsletter, conducting email interviews for the Bay One-Acts, and participating in Theater Bay Area's ATLAS program for playwrights.

And that doesn't even include other things like switching to a new team at work, having my parents visit last weekend, trying to maintain a semblance of sanity and a personal life... And I'd dared to hope that October would be less busy than September, but honestly, this month doesn't show any signs of letting up.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that I wrote my Theater Pub column this week about being overscheduled. (Oh yes! Because I'm still writing for that venue every other week, too!)

More specifically, I wrote about how it's possible to be overscheduled and still be drifting through life. How sometimes we overschedule ourselves in order to avoid confronting our fears and doubts -- we keep busy, and do what other people tell us to do, because that's easier than making decisions for ourselves. It's really, really scary to say "I want this and I'm going to fight like hell to get it," because then there's a chance you might not get it... it's easier to just take the opportunities that are handed to you, feeling like you ought to be grateful for them. That, in fact, it would be selfish to strike out on your own, or to try to cut back on the number of things you're trying to accomplish at any given time.

Had I googled "drifting through life" before I wrote this column, I probably would have tried to work in a quotation or citation of Gretchen Rubin's (The Happiness Project) post about drift—she, too, makes the point that even if you seem to be working really hard or busy all the time, you can still be drifting.

In the meantime, I'm going to try not to let October kick my butt—and within the next three weeks, I'm going to come up with a five-year plan that, I hope, will get me back on course and make me feel less scattered.