26 October 2012

In his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, John Banville writes:

The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.

Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.

I found this to be a strange conclusion to a review of a novel; Banville seems to forgive Llosa for writing an underwhelming novel, because he has delivered to us compelling historical information.

I was thinking about this in relation to ARGO, which I saw last week.  I enjoyed it, I recommend it; but I was also left thinking that the film could have been so much better.  The material was fascinating, and dramatic; the film delivered the action but gave us, I thought, very little character.  Since it was conceived as a narrative feature, not a documentary, I wanted to see artistry and history working together to create for the viewer an experience.  It sort of did that, but not fully.

I guess what I’m feeling is: if you’re going to work with the dramatic forms — narrative film, novels — then do it!  Your material alone won’t carry you.  A great concept is just half the hog.

15 October 2012

My monthly column at The Common, “Annals of Mobility,” is up today.  For this second installment, I write about mobility as adolescence, and the moral implications thereof — through the eyes of Wes Anderson, Wendell Berry, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Esther Freud.

7 October 2012

Checkerboard Films’s documentary James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime, will be screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival today — the film’s US premiere (and my first film credit)!

More info here.

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?

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…

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.

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.

29 August 2012

On the occasion of summer’s almost-end, and of preparing to give a short “what I did this summer” presentation at student orientation this evening, I give you: “What I Did (and Did Not Do) This Summer”:

I did not blog here very often.   I took an official hiatus while at MacDowell for four weeks, and upon return decided that A Limited-Internet Life is A High-Quality Life, when one is trying to write a book, read many books, write short essays, etc.  And to some degree when one is trying to nourish human relationships.   My brain, I’ve learned, is very porous/permeable; screen time takes over/muddles/fatigues mental capacity significantly.  Emotional capacity, too. Some people really do seem to get smarter and more vital via the Internet (see my post about Ai Wei Wei, which is one reason I will continue to keep this blog at all); I seem to get dumber/less human.  Whenever possible, I’ve stayed off the Internet/away from email before 1pm.  Thus, less blogging.

I shelved the book that I was originally hoping to finish writing this summer.  This is hard to even talk/write about.  I will say that my lunch meeting with my agent, where I broke the news, went very well, and I’m thankful that she is the sort of agent who is a human being first (I’m told not all agents are.)  Despite this hard reality…

I started and made sustained progress on a new work of fiction that feels good, and alive, and about which I feel hopeful and more clear-headed. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

I made good use of the mornings.  My undisclosed, favorite library carrel saw my a** mornings at 8, and I recommend this, writer-friends.  Carpe diem.  Blah blah blah.

I reunited with my mountain bike.  I loved riding around in Peterborough, NH, and getting some exercise to boot.  The bike had been in storage for, I don’t know, 10 years?  Back in the city, I’ve been riding it regularly in Central Park and along the Westside path.  One of these days you may see me huffing and pedaling past you on the street.

I reunited with yoga.  God bless the Harlem Yoga Studio.

I taught a fantastic summer fiction workshop.  The students were fantastic, that is.  Summer is especially fun, because you tend to get a very diverse group – age, life experience, literary interests.  We had more males than females – unheard of!  We had gritty sex-and-drugs stories, 19th century-esque novels of manners, experimental collage prose, YA fantasy, science fiction.  We had someone Skype in from Peru.  We read George Eliot and Garcia Marquez.  The students dug in and respected each others’ work, even when it was clear that they did not “like” each others’ work.  Only in the classroom, I sometimes think (with gratitude) can this kind of fruitful, unlikely-bedfellow magic happen.

I dipped my toe, then my foot, then got waist-deep in an editorial role with The Best New Literary Journal That You Should Know About, i.e. The CommonI blinked, and now I’m an Editor.  More on that soon.  Issue 04 (print version – a gorgeous thing to behold) forthcoming in October, and the launch of a super-enhanced online magazine component kicking off in mid-September.  The Common publishes work that engages/features significantly “a sense of place.”  Props to Jen Acker, Founding Editor and colleague extraordinaire, along with editors John Hennessey, Hannah Gersen, Liz Byrne, and Amy Sande-Friedman.  Contact me if you have work you’d like to submit, for print or online, fiction or nonfiction.

I continued as a staff writer for The Millions, and to develop the Post-40 Bloomers series there.  “Post-40 Bloomers” celebrates One Year!  We’ve featured 12 authors whose first major work debuted when they were 40 years of age or older, including Walker Percy, Harriet Doerr, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Anna Keesey, William Gay, Daniel Orozco, and others.  Some exciting things are on the horizon for the series in 2012-13; stay tuned, and do get in touch if you’d like to be involved in said exciting prospects.  In addition to the Post-40 series, I wrote an essay on loneliness, and did a Q&A with James Salter.

We went to Berlin.  Last year it was Buenos Aires.  We continue on our low-cost-of-living-cities tour.  In Berlin I discovered that I like beer – good beer – a lot.  German Schwarzbier (black lager) especially.  We learned about bokashi (for our compost bin) from our friend Shu-lea Cheang, whose multi-media installation on composting opened while we were there (a mail-order bag is on the way!).  I ate way too much pork (in a good way).  I turned the corner on coffee vs espresso (espresso!).  I learned how to hand-roll cigarettes.  We saw a lot of great contemporary art – at Documenta13 in Kassel and the many museums in Berlin.  I met the lovely, talented writer Madeleine Thien (thanks, Manju, for introducing us), who inspired me in so many ways.  Oh, and we did lots of touristy things, too.

I started, and am continuing to prepare for my Voices/Visions of Childhood & Youth seminar.  And I’m pretty excited.  The reading list is even better this year than last year.  (Will post here once it’s final-finalized.)

I did not garden very much.  Between MacDowell, and teaching, and travel, it didn’t happen.  Green beans and lettuces, yes.  Tomatoes, not so much.  Not yet, anyway.

I watched all of Season Four of Breaking Bad.  In one week.

It was a good summer.  I’m pretty tired, though.  Deep breath as school gears up and we teachers and students all turn into pumpkins.

Happy End-of-Summer!

 

14 August 2012

At The Millions today, my Q&A with James Salter, on the occasion of the release of A Sport and Pastime and Solo Faces in e-book format, by Open Road Media.  I re-read Solo Faces last month and admired it even more: that signature omniscient narration is not only unusual, but simply gorgeous in its confidence, its simplicity.

If you missed my profile of JS in Tin House last winter, you might enjoy this Q&A, the intro to which rehashes a little of how I first came in contact with Salter, back in 2010.  It’s been a great privilege to interact with him.  At 87, he’s having an inspiringly productive year, filled with the recognition and acclaim he deserves.

9 August 2012

Despite myself, I can’t seem to dredge up any repulsion or disdain for this. The truth is I’ll be there (next summer, i.e. the new, delayed release date) with bells on.

3 August 2012

“Life is much more interesting when you make a little bit of effort.”  –Ai Wei Wei

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here.  Summer slump, I guess – but also, actually, high productivity in other areas of life.  I’ve been off the Internet in the mornings for the most part, and limiting email and screen time to about an hour or two hours a day, contained.  It makes a huge difference, in everything.  My brain much clearer and more focused on things like, you know, making words on a page, and reading words in books — without all that cerebral-adrenaline-bursting (to use a super-technical term) wigging me out all the time.

But I just saw the Ai Wei Wei documentary — NEVER SORRY – (see it!) and was inspired (inspired!  This doesn’t happen all that much anymore, sadly) by how crucial blogging has been for Ai’s activist goals.  That daily blog post was everything to him: you could feel that in how he talked about it, how he treasured that blog, how he felt the reality of wielding truth against lies with every word; until the government shut him down.  At which point, Tweeting became everything.  In China, there is no taking for granted the ability to communicate freely and truthfully; a world without free speech, without a venue for plurality of opinion, is just not something we can fathom here.

In other words, I was struck by the simple truth that those of us who write — whatever it is we write — are empowered.  I’m ashamed to admit that I have never much thought of it that way.  It’s a good perspective check.  It’s a huge perspective check.

The hours in the day are still limited, though.  And my brain increasingly a sieve in the face of screen ubiquity.  But you have to make the effort, Ai said.  Life is much more interesting when you make a little bit of effort.

 

2 May 2012

At The Millions today, this month’s Post-40 Bloomer, poet Spencer Reece. (Actually, this is April’s feature, but it took me longer than I’d expected to write, so it’s only posting today.)  Take a look – Reece’s story is exemplary of the post-40 bloomer, I think, in all its life-living, art-making richness.

One thing I did not manage to cover in my piece is the fact that James Franco, when he was a film student at Yale, approached Reece, who was a Divinity student there at the same time, about making a short film based on Reece’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale.” I was focusing so much on studying Reece’s poetry, that I decided not to watch the film; I thought it would take my mind in a completely different direction I didn’t want to go.

But, in case you’re interested, here’s a synopsis and some stills, from Cannes, where the film was a closing night feature.

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