29 September 2012

I loved this piece by Michael Chabon in the NYRB on dreams—real and literary.  I think a lot about dreams, my own and those of my fictional characters. And I love writing dreams; which is why I’m not sure I agree with Chabon in the end:

Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that [...]

24 September 2012

I had the privilege of seeing The Culture Project’s 10th Anniversary revival of The Exonerated.  I missed it the first time around, but I remember hearing much about it.  A friend of mine was at the time working in Alabama as a defense attorney on death row cases, and she’d urged me to see it.  I’m glad I had this second chance.

 

The idea that people are wrongly accused for capital crimes is now, if not “well-known,” much better known than it was in 1992.  So the impact of the play may not have been as strong as it would have been had I seen it 10 years ago.  And yet still… maybe the measure of its success as art, in addition to documentation, is that I walked out of there feeling a lot of different things simultaneously:  grateful, for my freedom and my life; moved and inspired, by the enlargement of soul that these “characters” demonstrated after losing so many years of their lives, after losing, really, their very lives; frightened, that we live in a society whose justice system is so deeply flawed; ashamed, of my pettiness and limits of character; envious, of the depth and breadth of love these people, these exonerated, had given and received throughout their struggle.  It would be foolhardy to imagine that I would become a different person after seeing the show, but I do truly feel changed, in some invisible but significant way, for seeing it.

The cast rotates (brilliant for publicity, and for the show itself), and we had the good fortune of an amazing group, including Chris Sarandon, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, JD Williams, and a non-rotating cast who performed impeccably.

Related, filmmaker Errol Morris spoke on this week’s “On the Media” about Jeffrey MacDonald, a man sentenced to death 30 years ago for the murder of his wife and daughters.  Morris is convinced that MacDonald is innocent and has written a book about it, a revisionist history, A Wilderness of Error.  Will this be THE THIN BLUE LINE 2.0?

21 September 2012

Following is from Sue Halpern, editor of NYRB’s new ebook series.  I am actually breathing a sigh of relief.  The anxiety of being one these writers “whose first books had been critical successes [but] were unable to find publishers for their second” hovers; but it’s going to be okay.  NYRB is publishing these writers, whose books are “loved” by editors who can’t publish them.

A few years ago, around the time I was writing a piece for The New York Review of Booksabout digital reading devices, I ran into a novelist who mentioned that many of his friends whose first books had been critical successes were unable to find publishers for their second. The economics of traditional publishing, he pointed out, did not favor non-commercial books, and when you added in the threat that digital technology posed to bookstores, the end result would be an ever-shrinking market for serious literary books.


The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke

As a writer myself—my sixth book will be published next spring—I was sensitive to the novelist’s lament. I love books—not just their words, but their feel and smell and look; cracking the spine of a paperback is one of life’s great guilty pleasures. But to my surprise, I was finding in my hands-on research for The New York Review that a good story transcends its medium:  I could get just as lost in an e-book as I could in a book bound between hard covers.  By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter, the digital “revolution,” as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.

What better place to launch this venture than New York Review Books, which was already leading discerning readers to great and often forgotten classics of literature?  But unlike the NYRB Classics series, these books would be by contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them.  If any audience would be receptive, I reasoned, it would be the adventurous NYRB crowd.

Sometime later I was sitting in the office of an editor at one of the Big Six publishing houses, a man of exquisite literary taste who had been in the business a long time, explaining the premise of this new venture, which we had named NYRB Lit. I was nervous—did he think it was nutty or misdirected or a waste of time? He turned away for a moment and reached for a pile of papers on his desk. “I love this book,” he said handing it to me, “but we are not going to be able to publish it here.”  That word, “love,” is what animates how I want each book to come to me. I am looking for books that someone—an editor, an agent, a writer, a reader—is passionate about, a book that he or she believes must be read.

The Water Theatre, the book that was given to me that day, is now the inaugural book in the NYRB Lit series. Written by Lindsay Clarke…

This is kind of the best news I’ve heard in a while.

20 September 2012

Shavasana.

17 September 2012

Thanks to Lisa at Like Fire for alerting us to NYRB’s new e-book series, NYRB Lit — “devoted to publishing contemporary books of literary merit from around the world.”  Launching this fall, which means, presumably, now!

I’m way behind when it comes to e-reading; when I speak of “turning the corner,” I mean my relationship to e-reading, not e-reading itself.  (I tried the Kindle a couple of years ago and just couldn’t do it — no pages, all that scrolling, ick.) But then again: NYRB launching an e-reading series feels momentous; with their beautiful Classics Series (bringing worthy classic titles back into print), and tabloid-format bimonthly mag (long-form reviews and articles), NYRB has felt to me like the last man standing.

And yet, their new series feels…  natural.  As if they waited until it felt right, no need to rush, and then went for it.  Of course it just makes sense, when your mission is to bring the best (non-blockbuster) literary work into the world, and you want to publish new work, economically risky work, that you’d take advantage of low-cost production and distribution.  I’m excited.

As always, it looks as if many of the titles will be works in translation; and the “covers,” i.e. the digital thumbnails, are lovely.

I’ve been thinking about an ipad; if the rumors about an ipad mini are true, then the corner may very well be turned this fall — for me, and for NYRB.

13 September 2012

A wonderfully written double-review in this week’s NYRB of the summer’s two best movies — Benh Zeitlin‘s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and Wes Anderson‘s MOONRISE KINGDOM.  I wish Geoffrey O’Brien‘s piece was not pay-walled, though.  Perhaps one can register with the NYRB for free?  I hope so…

I feel stronger about BEASTS than about MOONRISE; I am reminded of an interview with U.S. Open Champion Andy Murray on Charlie Rose the other night, where the phrase “complete game” kept coming up.  Murray’s opponent, Novac Djokovic, has power, athleticism, consistency; but Murray has variety, nimbleness, the full array of skills.  BEASTS is sprawling and intense, fantastical and hyper-real, equally emotional and physical in its approach to the spectacular; the film’s action, for me, feels integral — both cause and effect in relation to the characters and the world Zeitlin conjures.  The action in MOONRISE feels at times (especially at the end) like a mere vehicle to showcase Anderson’s imaginative reach, as manifest in visual and verbal style.  Both films, at any rate, well worth seeing.

I am teaching a course of the literature of childhood this term; and writing/thinking constantly about “sense of place,” as an editor at The Common.  So both these films, and O’Brien’s review, hit all kinds of chords.  Will be writing more about all of the above soon…

12 September 2012

It’s hard to know if critics of Naomi Wolf‘s Vagina: A New Biography, are writing/speaking with a straight face.  So much of what I’ve read/heard on the subject has made me want to giggle. From Zoe Heller‘s review in the NY Review of Books:

To be sure, not every iteration of vagina pride represents an unambiguous advancement for the feminist cause.

The veneration of vaginas does not equal the veneration of women.

In order to achieve high orgasm [Wolf argues], women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”

“Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.” [...] Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too.

In their discussion on the New Yorker podcast, Judith Thurman and Ariel Levy discuss the book, and Levy’s review of it — repeating the expression “a happy vagina” upwards of 20 times.

I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina [...] It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina.  She may not be able to have a happy vagina.  There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina.  (Thurman)

If [Fifty Shades of Grey] were not so obviously written by an English person, you would swear it was written by Naomi Wolf. (Levy)

Laugh, or cry?

I recommend both the Heller piece and the podcast — sharp, and highly entertaining.

8 September 2012

A belated posting of some photos I took in Germany — at Documenta13, an art fair in Kassel.

The exhibits are spread out all over town; we’d been walking a long time.  It was hot and muggy.  A friend had recommended stopping at Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s  installation, which involved hammocks.

We were all over that.

The experience was, dare I say it, magical (if you’ve seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this will not seem surprising).  I am sure there is a more sophisticated analysis of the artist’s intentions, but the simplicity of Lie still, look up, for an over-busy urbanite, was profound in itself.

4 September 2012

Steven Gillis, publisher of Dzanc Books, has a new collection of stories out, The Law of Strings.  He talks about the book, and the force that is independent literary publishing, in a great interview at Fiction Writers Review.

As for my role then at Dzanc as editor/publisher, and my identity as a writer, I not only don’t see a problem, I think it’s a huge advantage. Think about it. Who would you rather have review your submission: another writer who understands the craft and is interested solely in acquiring the greatest writing, or some pencil-pushing New York “publisher” who knows nothing about the intimacies of writing and whose sole focus is on the market and what book will sell?

I generalize, of course. I shouldn’t insult pencil-pushers. New York publishing has become a joke, an oxymoron. The only real publishing takes places in the indie publishing arena. I swear, and you ask any literary fiction reader and writer, the books you see reviewed and nominated for end-of-the-year awards from the big houses pale beside the works that the indie publishers are bringing to market. It’s not even close. The world has fallen off its axis. It used to be great writing was revered and actually read and discussed. Now shit sells, and the majority of the audience doesn’t even know the difference.

The big houses push their crap to make money. That’s their only interest. And the irony is, they are so bad at choosing the books they market, you might as well have a sixth-grader making the decisions. Again, no insult meant to sixth-graders. I will compare Dzanc’s list of books to any house in the world. Our concern is solely about the writing. And the author. That is all. We don’t care about paying for fancy lunches and dinners and houses in the Hamptons. We aren’t in bed with agents. We are literary fiction publishers. That is why Dan Wickett (the best literary mind and greatest partner I could have) and I founded Dzanc books seven years ago. Because we knew for a fact there were great writers out there whose work deserved and needed to be published. That is the bottom line. That is all there is. Okay, that’s my soapbox pitch. Getting down now. But damn, do I think writers should be involved in publishing? Doesn’t the question answer itself?

As a fellow writer/editor, I say, Amen to all that.  And three cheers for indies — keep doing what you’re doing. Please.

2 September 2012

Chris Kenneally‘s SIDE BY SIDE  - a documentary about The Death of Film and The Takeover of Digital is well worth seeing. If for no other reason than to marvel at how our little Keanu (Reeves) — the film’s co-producer and on-screen interviewer — has grown up.

Most fascinating for me was witnessing the passion with which our contemporary masters — David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Lana and Andy Wachowski – along with a handful of talented indie filmmakers, spoke about the good and the bad of digital’s ascendance.  At the core, it seems to me, is the question of control — with digitization came unlimited manipulability of the image, as well as flexibility: without the physical encumbrances of film and film cameras, cinematography has become a whole new thing, and for some, that whole new thing is miraculous, while for others, it is no longer Art.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of pacing: it used to be that you’d shoot a full day and wouldn’t know what you had until the next day, when the crew got together to view the “dailies,” after the film was processed overnight.  You also took many breaks throughout the day to reload film magazines.  With digital, the shooting process changed drastically — for directors, cinematographers, actors (and later, for the editors and colorists).  Everything happened faster, and continuously.  Everything that was shot could be viewed, by the entire cast and crew, immediately.  The camera kept rolling and rolling, because why not — the pressure to conserve precious, expensive film had disappeared from the process.

We all know movie making has changed; SIDE BY SIDE details those changes and how everyone involved in the process has been affected.  The film is making me think about the process of art-making, about the fundamental relationship between an artist and her materials, her media — about what it means, really, to be “free” to create meaningful art.

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