12 November 2012

Today, my brief look at “forced mobility,” i.e. exile, at The Common.  

With the displacement of so many during Hurricane Sandy—separation from home, identity, stability—my monthly reflection on mobility took me to various perspectives on exile, by writers who’ve lived it first-hand.  Roberto Bolano‘s position is especially interesting.

Also: today Bloom launches!  Come visit us at this new literary site and community.

Bolano image via jeansilver/flickr

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.

21 October 2012

As we get closer to election day, as we get ready to watch the candidates debate on TV one more time, I am reminded of one of my peeves: this habit of blaming the President for gas prices, on both sides.  A couple of articles (there are many more) to debunk that idea, which is among the cheapest of campaign strategies:

From a blog called The Moderate Voice

From the NY Times

It’s a fundamental problem of the democratic process, it seems to me — that the economy, and the workings of government, are more complex than the average citizen can get her head around.  We ascribe to the President powers he doesn’t have, and are ignorant of others that he does have (in the area of national security, for instance).  We hold the wrong people accountable.  We have short-term memories and short attention spans.  We are susceptible to performance over substance.  Uy.  It’s a weighty responsibility, this voting right of ours.  May we all work just a little harder, do just a little more fact-checking, every time we get ready to exercise it.

14 October 2012

We’ve just finished watching Season One of Homeland (so don’t tell me what happens in Season Two if you’ve got cable).  If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve usually got some TV series obsession going on, and that I’m always a season behind (unless it’s a network TV show).  It’s been interesting to me how much TV has been a part of my life over the past few years, ever since (like so many others of my “cultural class”) The Wire rocked my world.

In particular, I learn a lot from all these intense drama series about plot and suspense. No surprise there.   But the best ones also show us how to build complex characters—often exasperatingly flawed, and yet at the same time utterly compelling.

One thing I’m thinking about in terms of Homeland‘s strengths and weaknesses is its failure to build a convincing, dimensional, intricately-developed world—something that the very best of the TV dramas do extremely well (The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Breaking Bad). While both Carrie Mathison’s and Nicholas Brody’s characters are well-developed, and the acting is stellar, I find myself frustrated by the limited scope of the world in which they exist.  The political universe, for example, feels thin and sparsely populated: it is as if the Vice President is the only locus of power, which is both unsatisfying and unlikely.  The same goes for the CIA. One would imagine that there is just one guy (the character named David Estes) calling shots, one room in which counter-terrorism happens, one lone bi-polar gal (Carrie/Claire Danes) going after the bad guys.  I remember having this discussion with a student of mine, who is writing a novel about a megachurch: how to give the impression/feel of thousands of people while only focusing on 4 or 5? The example I gave, in fact, was from The West Wing—how, when shooting the Democratic National Convention, they had about 100 extras to shoot scenes intended to give the feeling of a packed arena of thousands.  They used lights, low camera angles, dubbed-in noise.  What are the literary analogies?

On the level of plot and suspense, too, Homeland is just a little loose and flabby.  The key to effective suspense, it seems to me, is planting nagging questions in the viewer’s mind and revealing shades of answers at just the right pacing.  In Homeland, that pacing is just slightly off: the questions pile up and remain unanswered for too long, which is to say that the characters themselves would not wait as long as the viewer is asked to for answers.  An example: there is a murky mystery around the supposed death of Sergeant Brody’s co-POW Tom Walker by his own hands.  Why doesn’t Carrie wonder about this earlier? Why doesn’t anyone?  In other words, the writers have developed characters so razor-sharp that the viewer can’t buy their ignorance, or delayed intelligence, for as long as we’re asked to.  Another example: Brody’s daughter, who sees/notices everything about him, sees him put the suicide-bomb vest in the trunk of the car.  She knows something is  odd about it when her father insists it’s “nothing.”  He leaves it there overnight.  She never goes back to the car to investigate.  We’re thinking, no way, she’s too smart to let that go.

All that said, I’ll be watching Season Two as soon as it’s out on DVD.  Which tells me that, for this viewer/reader, character is king.

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?

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.

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.

 

9 April 2012

This is old news now, but I was reminded of it when dining with a friend last night and singing the praises of our favorite roasted vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower)…

I’ve already written about the unjust rap that spinach gets, i.e. reading a literary work being compared to “eating your spinach.”  Last week, Justice Antonin Scalia repeatedly  — 9 times, according to the NY Times — compared the health-care mandate to forcing Americans to eat their broccoli.

“Could you define the market — everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli?”

Well why not make people buy broccoli?  Prices would go down, health will surely go up, in which case health costs across the country will go down.  Green vegetables for everyone!

I understand that it’s a slippery slope, but we’re being “mandated” by the government to do plenty of things that are “good for us” — don’t smoke, go to school, etc.  I mean, in a world where 10 year-old girls are sold into sex slavery, there’s something a little absurd about living in a country where people would be up in arms if told to eat broccoli.

5 March 2012

I’ve seen it three times now — once on the big screen, once on my laptop, and once in a classroom with 15 undergraduate students (a seminar on literature of childhood).  It holds up every time, which is remarkable (in the second and third instances) given how patiently the story and its characters unfold, and how little speech there is in the film.  Victor Erice‘s THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE moves from philosophical to morbid to lighthearted to melancholy via the simplest filmic gestures; and, of course, there is Ana Torrent‘s stunning little face, which moves through these registers and emotions with the same seamlessness and beauty.  Definitely among my top 5 of all time.

Criterion‘s film notes tell us that the film’s artful spareness is in good part due to Franco-era censorship (the film was made in 1940, the year after Franco took power).  There were more overt political references in an earlier version, as well as a reflective voiceover from an adult Ana.  I am no proponent of censorship; but as a teacher, I feel affirmed in my imposition of parameters and limitations on students (word counts, prompts, etc) as they work on craft; so often we see that Less is More.

…I’ve been thinking about you.

And I admit it bums me out that — after such an intense and real togetherness that we all shared, hope and change, etc — you gave up on President Obama, and sometimes you stink-talk him publicly.  I am not discounting your disappointment.  Maybe there was a particular issue, dear to your heart, and you feel that the President reneged on a campaign promise.  Or maybe you’re frustrated by his cautious pragmatism.  Or his pie-in-the-sky ambition.  Or his radical liberalism.  Or his moderate centrism.  Or his capitalism.  Or his socialism.  Maybe he is too black for you, or not black enough.

Maybe it’s much closer to home, i.e. you or someone you love is currently an unemployment statistic.

I am not discounting any of this.  I can name a major issue or two that the President is not addressing the way I think he should; and my daily life is directly affected by the mortgage crisis, lack of access to credit, the cost of health care, and big-business exploitation of the environment.

But look: on what are you basing your conclusion that it’s all the President’s “fault”?  On media bytes about how “the President clearly can’t run against the Republicans based on his record, because  look at how terrible everything is”?  I just ask that you look closely at the complexity and depth of the disaster(s) President Obama inherited.  Do some more research on what he’s actually attempted to do (and why he failed), everything he’s succeeded in doing (and how he managed that), and what he plans to continue doing in order to achieve the most General Good possible.  I myself, on a basic level, still trust that this President’s definition of the most General Good is both smart and noble — not perfectly so, but as comprehensively as anything we’ve seen in a long time.

Read Ryan Lizza’s profile in the New Yorker of Obama’s thorough, thoughtful, and disciplined decision-making process over the last two years for a sense of both the goodness and the imperfection of that process.

Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough—but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.

I’m not sure why this assessment should/would make Obama supporters abandon him; and it disappoints me that it does. If Obama had not become supremely “canny and tough,” if he had not looked squarely at real obstacles to his most General Good agenda; if he had remained what many feared he was, i.e. all poetry and no prose, inspiring and appealing but unqualified to govern — it seems to me we’d be in much worse trouble now.

We elected him because he’s no dummy, and because he got into this with a genuine vision for productive politics.  He is not a monarch; has 4 to 8 years to accomplish things (with half of that time really being sucked up by campaigning).  We should grow up and stop acting like he is operating in a no-limitations political system with all the time and magical influence in the world.  We should recognize that when faced many times a day with deciding between get-something-good-done-at-the-cost-of-something-else, vs get-nothing-done-in-order-to-appear-consistent-or-principled-in-a-simplistic-way,  you do the best you can; you are making very difficult decisions, you hardly ever feel satisfied with them, and you need the support of your supporters.  Keep him accountable, sure; but please, reconsider your easy dismissal and stink-talking.

16 January 2012

I worked through most of MLK day, but I did enjoy wandering the Studio Museum of Harlem for an hour or so.  It’s a privilege to live in this neighborhood, to partake in its culture, present and past; and I forget it too easily.

I found this photograph utterly arresting and beautiful.  I failed to photograph the plaque with the artist’s name, but I’m working on tracking it down.

Kira Lynn Harris‘s homage to Romare Bearden‘s “The Block,” part of the Romare Bearden Project, celebrating the centennial of his birth.

If you’re a New Yorker, be sure to make the trip uptown; if you’re an uptowner, be sure to get over to the Studio Museum sometime if you haven’t. It will  be worth your while.

10 January 2011

We’ve been obsessed with the Republican primaries and debates here.  I suppose that means I’m not  as cynical as I thought I was; I keep looking for candidates to break through with a true voice, to stray from pre-packaged message message message.  Newt and Dr. Ron are the ones to watch in this respect, although John Huntsman showed signs of life on Sunday in NH.

Romney‘s electability strategy is clear: I’ve run businesses, I’ve lived “in the real economy,” that Obama guy hasn’t.  Another strategy that I imagine the Romneyans will pursue might go like this: I’m a doer, not a hand-wringer, we need real-world action; this isn’t a time for “nuanced thinking,” for professorial passivity.

Ugh.

With the departure of Obama’s Chief of Staff Bill Daley, this dichotomy of character comes up again: Rahm Emanuel was a “ball-buster,” a guy who “got things done.”  Again, he wasn’t known as a thinker, a ponderer, but rather a guy with a short fuse and sharp, goal-oriented focus.  This is apparently what a good Chief of Staff needs to be, what Daley wasn’t (not enough, anyway).

But what about in the rest of life? I wonder often if we’re all destined to be one or the other, in a final-accounting-of-your-life sort of way, i.e. thinkers or doers.  People of process or people of results.  An obvious answer is, “Of course not.” Weirdly, the older I get, the more I think (in an unnuanced way), maybe so…

 

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