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.

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 [...]

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!


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.


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…


12 September 2011

Watching on TV a good part of the 9/11 memorial ceremony yesterday at Ground Zero, I was struck by (and can’t stop thinking about) how many of the mourner-presenters – who stood to read a portion of victims’ names, then the name of their own lost loved ones along with a brief few words about them – said something about their beloved deceased “watching over them.”

Almost without exception, survivors of 9/11 (and survivors of those family members who died), when interviewed, will talk about how changed they are, how nothing was ever or will ever be the same.  I wonder how many of them believed in spirits or the spiritual realm beforehand, and how/if this in particular has changed.

This of course assumes that nothing strictly script-like (other than a word limit and perhaps some guidelines?) was given to yesterday’s presenters; although, at one point, hearing the repetition, it did almost seem that their words had been prescribed.  For instance, I think almost everyone addressed their deceased loved one directly, e.g. Mom, we love you and we miss you… I’d like to believe that every word came from the heart yesterday; in fact, I am choosing to believe that.  With something as deeply tragic as the loss of someone you love to an event as horrific as 9/11, I can’t imagine that so many people would allow such a specific prescription from an external power.

It made me think about whether or not, if I unexpectedly lost a loved one, I would speak to him or her, in my mind or out loud, as if the person were still with me.  Would I believe the person were still with me?  Or would it be more like talking to myself, to the part of that person that had become, in some ineffable way, a part of me?  Not unlike the question, Would you have stayed in the burning tower, or would you have jumped?  it’s simply and utterly impossible to imagine.  Nothing could ever prepare a person for such horror or devastation or loss.


23 August 2011

So we’re finishing up Season 2 of “Breaking Bad” here, and it just gets better and better.  If you haven’t watched it yet, run don’t walk.  I often find myself saying out loud, “Wow.”

In the most recent episode we watched, Season 2 Episode 13, I think I may have “discovered” a literary reference.  It seems impossible to discover anything these days, with so many fan sites and discussion boards and most people being much more current than myself (I mean, here I am, still on Season 2, for goodness sake); but after googling several different combinations of words, I was only able to come up with one discussion page (and the thread is so long I couldn’t find what I was looking for).  What I googled was “Breaking Bad Elizabeth Bishop.”

A character named Jane falls off the wagon (heroin), and her father enters her bedroom to dig around.  There is a photographic portrait on the wall, and the prominence of it gives an impression that the portrait might be Jane’s dead mother.  The woman in the portrait looked very familiar, and I soon recognized her as Elizabeth Bishop.  Later, after Jane overdoses and the father is asked by the police for Jane’s mother’s maiden name, he says, “Bishop.”  Hmm…  Perhaps writer and creator Vince Gilligan is an EB fan.

1 August 2011

I loved reading Lorrie Moore‘s piece in the New York Review of Books about “Friday Night Lights”; but I’d say she needs to read the blogs more before claiming FNL as a “solitary, isolated” guilty pleasure.  (Oh, my Lord – did I just make a plug for social networking?)

Moore and I agree about cleavage volume and Lyla Garrity’s (Minka Kelly) dismissability, along with Kyle Chandler‘s sublime acting. But I can’t quite get with viewers, Moore included, who fixate on the character Tim Riggins.  Don’t get me wrong: Taylor Kitsch nails this character; he is compelling and complex and beautiful (the hair, the hair).  But for me, it’s all about Matt Saracen; I could watch Zach Gilford on screen, with his nervous doe eyes, sage-yet-clumsy earnestness, and periodic manly resolve for hours.  The episode for which he was nominated for an Emmy – in which his father, a soldier in Iraq, dies – was truly award-worthy; but another (preceding) episode I think surpassed it: Matt’s rage simmers (Julie has dumped him, his rebound lover has dumped him, he’s lost his QB spot to a prick freshman, his grandmother’s dementia increases, Coach Taylor has taken a college coaching job), then boils over, then Coach Taylor corners him (in Matt’s own house) to set him straight.  Drenched and crumpled in the bathtub after Coach shoves him in there to cool him off, he sobs, “Why does everyone abandon me?  What’s wrong with me?”  It sounds bathetic as I describe it, but it’s one of those things you just have to see; especially after knowing Matt’s even-keeled character for three years.

The last paragraph of Moore’s piece is hilarious (her humor is sprinkled throughout, but she lets it loose at the end):

The people I was speaking with mostly wanted to discuss the character Tim Riggins, played by Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch heaven! Lyla Garrity was a dismissible minx. Tyra Collette, who runs for class president by saying, “Nobody here is getting laid if you let Ginny here have the prom in the gym,” had distracting hairdo instability. The girls in general held less interest, and the coach’s new baby Graciebelle held the least of all. (According to Jason Katims in the DVD commentary, Graciebelle is portrayed by a toddler who is one of “three twin sisters,” a remark that certainly gives one pause.)

(“Distracting hairdo instability” and “three twin sisters” had me laughing all afternoon.)

I’ve spilled an awful lot of ink over FNL; well at least I’m in good company.  Lorrie Moore!  The New York Review of Books!

13 July 2011

I was actually surfing channels looking for “The Voice“, because someone told me it was worth watching, but “America’s Got Talent” was on, and these adorable little kids were singing and dancing. This gal, I mean, you’ve got to have a heart of stone not to feel somethin‘.

29 June 2011

At The Millions today, my Q&A with Ayelet Waldman, author of the NY Times Best-Seller Bad Mother and the novels Red Hook Road and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits.  Waldman and her husband Michael Chabon are co-writing a pilot for HBO called “Hobgoblin.”  Darren Aronofsky to direct.

Also, from last week, my take on Richard Yates‘s The Easter Parade.


A couple of other interesting posts recently at The Millions: Lydia Kiesling reviews Carmela Ciararu‘s Nom de Plume (and the author responds strongly in the comments), and Timothy Aubry reviews The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.  


Finally, we are reminded of Deborah Eisenberg saying, in a 2010 profile, “I’m sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears.” A new short story by Eisenberg is up at NYRB.

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]

25 April 2011

A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.”  She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

It’s sad, but it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:

Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?

I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one.  In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time.  It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can.  I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine.  Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it.  Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic.  Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.


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