6 August 2012
Thanks to Wendy S. for introducing me to Irish writer Mary Costello‘s debut story collection, The China Factory.
At The Millions today, my review/profile/interview with Costello. It’s a weird form, I admit, and probably unkosher in the criticism world — but somehow, to me, it feels right.
…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.
14 October 2011
A convergence of things: reading/teaching Susan Choi‘s American Woman, watching Sidney Lumet‘s Running on Empty, listening to Ben Marcus read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s “A Village After Dark” on the New Yorker podcast. The title of this post is taken from the Ishiguro story, a dream-surrealist sort of story where a man revisits his past, is reminded of the (unspecified) activism of his youth, and confronts those whom he harmed or disregarded in those days.
Both Choi and Lumet also look at youthful activism – that is, an activism that embraced violence (in the 60s). The characters look back on what they did, who they were, how they justified their actions; consider whether they stand by their acts of “conscientious violence.” They consider, in short, whether they can be held accountable for what they did when they were very young.
Most of us haven’t planted bombs, but maybe we’ve naively or unknowingly – like Ishiguro’s Fletcher – ruined people’s lives. It’s a bit terrifying to think about how earnestly we move through each day, each season of our lives, deciding and acting (and not acting) and intuiting. I suppose that’s why it makes for such good literary/cinematic material…
16 May 2011
The opening film for the 34th Asian American International Film Festival has been announced: AMIGO, the new film by John Sayles. Here’s the trailer:
I’m pretty excited about this; I’ve been a John Sayles fan for a long time, from the days when I first discovered auteur filmmakers and would watch all the films of a director I liked. LONE STAR, CITY OF HOPE, PASSION FISH, THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH, MEN WITH GUNS, EIGHT MEN OUT, and LIMBO are among my favorites. If you don’t know Sayles’s films, perhaps think of him as the director who launched actor Chris Cooper‘s career.
Sayles also has a new novel out – A Moment in the Sun – described by Adam Langer in the SF Chronicle as a “955-page epic criticizing American interventionism abroad and racism at home during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” Apparently it took Sayles two years to find a publisher for it.
Sayles has never been afraid to demand a lot from his readers and viewers; he is in many ways the quintessential indie artist, and a model of success on that path.
We’ve got the book in house, en shelf, surprisingly light in its ornate McSweeney’s hardcover, and I’m hoping to dig in maybe in late summer.
Come out for the AAIFF opening night in August. Details to come.
1 May 2011
With the teaching year coming to a close, I am happy to unwind a bit before plunging into the summer’s work. What better way than to plunge in to the comedic stage that is American politics (courtesy of Donald Trump).
Lest you wonder the relevance of political comedy to this blog… my seminar class recently looked at literary comedy, discussing works by George Saunders, Graham Greene, Donald Barthelme, Danielle Evans, Sergei Dovlatov, George Eliot, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth (Lorrie Moore would have been an obvious addition to this reading list, but we’d already a few stories by her previously). How does humor work in literature? What’s funny and who decides? How does the author control the humor, so that the reader is laughing at the right moments, for the right reasons, absorbing the intended nuances? Where is the author relative to the joke, the character, the reader? Timing, narrative distance, voice. In her interview with The Paris Review, Amy Hempel talked about schooling herself in stand-up comedy as a part of her writers’ education.
Among his many gifts and talents, our fair President is also a humorist in his own right. I suppose this is one of those things where, if you are an admirer of the President, you will find this brilliant and hilarious; if not, well… you can empathize with the visibly-irritated Donald Trump (who is I’m sure perfectly happy to have the camera turned on him). I particularly enjoyed Michelle Obama’s good-sportness (in a subtly laugh-out-loud moment, we see her on video working in her garden with school children — ”Look, a carrot!” she exclaims) and the President’s obvious ear for language as he joked about Tim HOSEnee Pawlenty’s undisclosed middle name.
Incidentally, the President way upstaged Seth Meyers; I love Seth Meyers, but this was quite painful.
For a more serious look at Donald Trump’s impact on the political moment, check out Lawrence O’Donnell’s impassioned plea to NBC to reveal Trump’s intentions for the fall. [via HuffPo]
2 February 2011
I was so moved by this video segment on Democracy Now this morning (forward to 15:50). It caught me off guard; I got choked up. Something about the confidence, the peacefulness, the calm and dignified truth-telling of the protestors. Their expressions about why they are there, what they want, are so deeply reasonable. They are cleaning up their trash in the square. They have claimed the inevitability of effecting this change. Men and women are all out there together.
One woman said, “I have nothing to lose now. I have already said ‘down with Mubarak’ on TV. If he doesn’t go, then we all go down; we go, as they say, behind the sun.” She said all this smiling, fearless. Another man said, “The relationship between Mubarak and the people has ended.” Simple as that, like lovers parting ways.
This was all yesterday, though. Today, a different story. What a thing to witness, what a time to be alive… our hearts are with the Egyptian people.
29 January 2011
I’m thinking about this because I’ve been reading and teaching stories by Flannery O’Connor. Her characters are so vivid and real, so particular and alive; but O’Connor does not much go in for psychologizing. We know who these characters are, but not so much WHY they are the way they are or how they got that way. We accept them as fact; she is that good at incarnating full human beings and staking out their territory of reality. A student observed that O’Connor clearly knew their psychology inside and out, which is how she is able to render them so well, via their externalities. This, I think, is a kind of argument for “write what you know,” i.e. write the characters you know inside and out, intuitively, so that the external details you select to characterize them will inevitably (one hopes) evoke both the present and the past of that character.
O’Connor’s characters are also no doubt creatures of the South, of a particular era. Those of us working in a more heterogeneous, multi-cultural, multi-geographical universe perhaps are required to consider more these questions of back story, of childhood experience, of what brings adult character A to situation or conflict X – that psycho-experiential map.
A colleague spoke the other day (during a thesis conference) about the coming-of-age genre, how that genre’s power is in giving the reader a compact story, the most formative experiences from ages x to xx; and then leaving us at that juncture, at the precipice, before the character transitions into adulthood. The emotional impact is in the projection and the resonance; the reader feels how these experiences may shape the character’s adult journey, we have a sense of knowing what paths the adult life will take – tragic, hopeful, what have you.
I don’t know. Psychology is in many ways the enemy of art and literature; it claims predictability, a+b=c. And yet we are all so profoundly shaped by both the language and conceptions of modern psychology, developmental narratives, etc. I myself often query students to consider what has shaped their character in his or her past, WHY is he or she like this? I recognize the danger of it, the too-easy map from A to B; the draining of mystery, or, as O’Connor would put it, “the mystery of personality.” But on the other hand there is the question of coherence, of writing characters who behave in credible ways, who feel human by virtue of the ways in which they process and absorb experience.
But people are strange. This perhaps is the truth underlying all truths about human behavior; experience certainly confirms it.
1 January 2011
Happy 2011 to all. We’ve started off our year with a fever in the house, which is unfortunate (poor J.); but at least we’ll get it out of the way, right? As for me, I am all about the Vitamin C and the Airborne.
I have actually been writing, but not fiction. I am working on a profile of James Salter, with whom I spent a day in Bridgehampton a few weeks ago. The piece is taking shape, it’s a new and interesting genre for me. I think Larissa MacFarquhar‘s work sets the gold standard for artist profiles, and I’ve been re-reading some of hers at the New Yorker.
In other not-writing activities, the holidays have driven me to movies. First, an animated set – The Iron Giant, and Up – both of which made me blubber like a girly girl. Then, some classics — I seem to be on a Burt Lancaster kick — From Here to Eternity (I swoon for Monty Clift, his sexual preferences notwithstanding, what can I say; and they just don’t make ‘em – leading ladies, that is – like Deborah Kerr anymore), The Swimmer, The Leopard – which features Alain Delon, who is maybe the French Monty Clift? Maybe not. (This one I’m going to catch on the big screen at Film Forum. Anyone? Anyone?) Also: Chicago, which I’d never seen, which led to All That Jazz, also which I’d never seen. And The Third Man, which wasn’t as good as I remember it. I declined to join J. for Sofia Coppola’s newest, Somewhere, which seemed both too mopey and too blonde (nothing specific against mopers or blondes) for my mood; he enjoyed it, however. In the queue: Gilda, Bright Star, Jude, and Le Corbeau.
Christmas eve boeuf bourguignon turned out great, by the way.
Forgot to snap a pic of this morning’s dduk-gook (Korean New Year’s soup) and pa-jun brunch, but it was perfect for both the start of the new year and for the sicky in the house. Pax got a special fatty brisket treat.
23 December 2010
Of course, ’tis the season of family – awareness/appreciation of, along with (re)consideration of who these people are and what it all means. We watched THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT the other night, a meaningful and complex portrait of a new kind of family, i.e. one with two moms + sperm donor. In the end, the film seems to be less about “lesbian family” and more about — as the philandering Jules (Julianne Moore) says, tearfully and remorsefully — “Marriage is hard.” (It’s also, a little bit, about “men are clueless,” or at least Mark Ruffalo‘s character Paul is; but there seems to be hope for boys, and girls too, i.e. the kids are all right.)
I’m haunted a little by a recent re-reading of Toni Morrison‘s A Mercy. It’s a story of makeshift family – a white couple, a Native American slave, two indentured servants, two black slave girls, a free black man — of misfits coming together in the wilderness, shedding conventional obligations and communal connections, partially by choice and partially by no-choice. In the end, their ties are not strong enough to hold: “They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought, or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess.” Of course all this takes place in a ruthless, slavery-centered, 17th century world. Have we made progress?
Random, but possibly related: I recently learned that a pretty good friend of mine comes from a quite famous family. It’s striking to learn such a thing, both for the fact itself and for the intentional belatedness of the revelation. There are the people who come before us, and everything/everyone that comes after, blood-wise, inheritance-wise; this pattern of breaking from one’s familial past/being unable to escape one’s inheritance seems to me The Story of Life. I’m thinking also of Jean-Michel Basquiat (another recently-watched film, i.e. THE RADIANT CHILD), whose father apparently disapproved of his “lack of respectability,” and it pained Jean-Michel deeply, to the bitter end.
I seem to have blogged myself into a rather dark place here. So let me return to the beginning: may your holidays be filled with appreciation, hope, and progress.