Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Discoveries: Karen Russell and 'Tin House'

"I feel like I'm always missing the mark in one of two directions: writing 'serious' lines, disgustingly lyrical sentences about the weather or whatever, like imitation Virginia Woolf, or I want to make a joke about boners. I want to write terrible, juvenile humor. Or have a shark fall out of a trapdoor, something nutty. So I'm constantly listing in one direction or the other; literal-lyrical or goofy-surreal. It's like: There we go, another four paragraphs about the violet cloud--the giant purple boner cloud in the sky...(Karen Russell, Tin House #46)"

When I use the word "discoveries," I need to clarify that I'm not claiming that I'm the first person to be introduced to new writers or publications. The true meaning is that I'm discussing personal discoveries. For my final post of 2010, I went through a long mental list of possible topics, seeing that, thanks to the holidays, my personal projects and readings have been temporarily sidetracked. I was tempted to spend a day doing a marathon reading of my New Yorker and New York Review Of Books back issues, and then write about a collection of themes and ideas that I had missed in the last year. I also toyed with the idea of simply doing a list of what I thought were my best posts of the year, but that was too self-serving for my tastes. So I decided to highlight two of the more exciting literary gems that came to my attention in 2010. While I've read and discussed a decent number of the writers who were featured in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list, the emergence of Karen Russell is proving to be too exciting to overlook. Also, I simply do not have the financial means or time available to devote to all of the terrific literary magazines and journals that are highlighting unknown voices and talents, even in the midst of a recession when such periodicals can be viewed as an unnecessary luxury. Some of these fine publications are struggling, yet surviving. And in 2010, I was fortunate enough to familiarize myself with the excellent stories and interviews of Tin House magazine, and in a wonderful coincidence, their final issue of 2010 features an excellent interview with Mrs. Russell, conducted by Elissa Schappell.

Russell's sentiment of combining the odd with the literary is evident in the few pieces I've read by her, but even going by such a scarce bibliography, her worthiness of being considered among the best young writers is never in doubt. In The New Yorker's July 26th issue, she published a stunning story entitled "The Dredgeman's Revelation," a tale involving a lonely Depression-era boat worker in the Florida swamps (Florida being Russell's native state). The man, named Louis Thanksgiving, escapes from his abusive adoptive father and ends up traveling through the Everglades, keeping a positive spin on the drudgery of his situation, attempting to define the notion of "friendship" among his fellow workers, and finally experiencing the surreal, horrifying fate of a man named Gideon. Without any real change in voice or narrative, Russell writes scenes of stunning imagery and metaphor:

"The doctor lit a Turkish cigarette and let out a little cry, a sadness that registered in decibels somewhere between a gambler's sigh and the poor woman's grief-mad wailing at the end of her labor--and then another cry joined the doctor's. The stillborn's blue face opened like a flower and he cried even harder, unequivocally alive now, unabashedly breathing, making good progress toward becoming Louis. The baby's face was reddening by the second, and the doctor plucked the cigarette from his lips like a tar carnation. He would have liked to keep on smoking, and drinking, too, but babies--you couldn't just stand there and toast their voyage back to nothingness (Russell 63)!"

And scenes of perverse oddity:

"In a scene that seemed as plausible and as horrifying as Louis's worst dreams, the birds descended on Gideon and hooked the prongs of their talons into his skin; perhaps a dozen of them lifted him into the sky. Gid's body shrank into the cloudless expanse. The sky that day was a bright sapphire, better weather than they'd had in weeks; for a long time, the men could see the shrinking pinpoint of Gid's black head, lolling below his shoulders, as if he were trying to work out a bad crick in his neck (Russell 69)."

In addition to excellent reviews, stories, and poems, the editors and writers of Tin House have a penchant for wonderful author interviews, and Schappell's discussion with Russell is no exception. Their conversation is witty and thought-provoking, and reminded me of the first issue of Tin House (#40) that I picked up, and the unabashed joy of literary discussion that was evident in that issue's interview with Colson Whitehead. Russell is modest about her success and talent, and a noticeable theme in the Tin House interviews is that the featured writers aren't being long-winded or outlandish in their breakdowns of the creative process.

"I've just stared to try to write longhand. The Internet is just this evil temptation. The hardest thing for me, as you can tell from this conversation, is ADD--just staying in my seat overcoming whatever distractions...The only process that works for me is what worked in grad school: trying to meet a terrifying deadline. I don't know how to do it, how to finish anything, without death swinging its fiery sword over my head. I don't know how to finish a draft without a lot of donkey kicks from anxiety and terror and self-loathing (Russell 109)."

It's also enjoyable to note the enthusiasm displayed by the interviewer. Elissa Schappell writes:

"Because critics, like scientists, relish classifications, the discovery of such a unique young talent has set off a flurry of attempts to label her particular genius. Her inventiveness and embrace of the absurd suggest George Saunders. Her macabre humor and Southern-gothic--or, in her case, swamp-gothic--sensibility make her kin to Flannery O'Connor. Ben Marcus simply defines her as 'a literary mystic (Schappell 104).'"

Swamplandia!, Russell's debut novel, will be published in February, all but assuring that 2011 will be off to an excellent start, literature-wise. I'm beyond excited to follow her upcoming publications, and I get the strong feeling that her writing, while stylistically different, will follow along the same path of Jonathan Lethem: works that are strange and sometimes genre-based, but grounded in serious talent and beneficial to the literary world as a whole. In the same fashion, while I want to open up my readings to other literary magazines, some that deserve more attention, I'm also looking forward to discovering new voices in Tin House. I devoted a decent segment of this site to essays and discussions of established, well-known writers, but the up and coming artists will continue to make their way to mainstream consciousness. While I'm not in a position to highlight these people or publications before anybody else, the joy of personal discovery can be just as, if not more, important.

A final note: I've said this before, but I cannot thank you enough if you're a regular reader of Chicago Ex-Patriate. As of now, I'll be following the same format in 2011, and while I probably have a very small audience, I find this outlet to be immensely satisfying, and I look forward to keeping up with everyone's websites and blogs. I've discovered a lot of new creators and mediums that way, and I hope that I'm helping you do the same. Happy New Year!

Works Cited:

Russell, Karen. "The Dredgeman's Revelation." The New Yorker. July 26th, 2010.

Schappell, Elissa. "Swamp Odyssey: A Conversation With Karen Russell." Tin House Magazine, #46. Winter 2010.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Same Grit, Different Day

So far, I've only read snippets of the reviews for Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, along with one brief interview with lead actor Jeff Bridges that read like a publicity piece meant for nationwide syndication. The only solid understanding that I have is that the Coen Brothers set out to make an adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 comic western novel, not a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film version, starring John Wayne. With any given book-to-film transition, it seems that there's either no attention given to the original source material, or there's too much to the point that the idea of a film narrative gets lost. Given that the Coens managed to create such a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, one that stood alone as both an original piece of cinema and a faithful evocation of McCarthy's prose, it's refreshing that they've put their focus on Portis and not just on a previous film version. However, I went into my recent screening of the newest film without having read the book, but with having seen Hathaway's version. Therefore, I could not help but make references between the two films, instead of taking it from the perspective of Portis's prose, so this review could very well go against what Joel and Ethan had in mind.

After her father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives to claim the body and to inquire about the law's efforts to bring Chaney to justice. Dissatisfied with the proceedings, she personally hires U.S. Marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find Chaney, based on his mean streak and description of having "true grit." Insisting that she go along with Cogburn on the journey, she's furious to find that, on the scheduled morning, he's already left, leaving behind a note that she should go home. Feeling that Cogburn is stealing her money, she finds him and admonishes him, and reasserts her right to go with him. She's even more put off by the presence of La Boeuf, a cocky Texas Ranger who's after a reward, since Chaney also murdered a state senator. The three motives and personalities clash, with the two men unnerved by Mattie's youth and determination, Mattie and Cogburn angered with La Boeuf's arrogance, and Mattie and La Boeuf put off with Cogburn's drinking. After a late-night revelation following a shoot-out with two hidden outlaws, they learn that Chaney has taken up with Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, leading to further, unexpected showdowns. For those completely unfamiliar with the plot, this is about as detailed as it can get without veering into spoiler territory.

Much like the 1969 version, the film struck me with the realization that strong cases can be made for Rooster or Mattie being considering the main character. While yet another case can be made for their journeys being a joint effort, their singular characteristics make them unique, but also vying for the top subconscious recognition. And, in essence, this goes for the actors as well; it's difficult to decide whether to mention an established veteran like Bridges first, or to open with the remarkable debut of Steinfeld. Even before the film opened, the consensus seemed to be the Steinfeld will receive an Academy Award nomination, and while it will be deserved if it happens, her strong performance goes above a simply "great debut," but also needs to be mentioned as a superior character interpretation. While Kim Darby held her own in the original, I couldn't help but think about her as somewhat whiny and annoying. Steinfeld, whether due to her age or her acting abilities, does a much better job of conveying Mattie's strong will coupled with life innocence. She shows fear in dire situations, but never seems to break down, even in tears. She handles the occasional comedic moment with muted, terrific timing, and her rapid-fire dialogue is delivered as a strong character, not a more sexist designation of a "strong female character" (this sometimes seems to be implied in film, as if women cannot possess a strong will and determination without it being 'quirky'). Cogburn and La Boeuf are not pleased with her dominating personality, but along with the audience, they accept it quickly, even if it's not out of social growth but more for survival value. Steinfeld possesses a lot of the acting traits that have made Ellen Page such a recognized talent, and hopefully with the right roles, she won't disappear like Darby ended up doing.

I did read the opening of Roger Ebert's True Grit review, and fully agree with the assessment that Bridges brings his own skills to the role of Cogburn, and not just a mimic of John Wayne's performance. Wayne's Cogburn was rough around the edges, blunt, but hiding a softer side in his stories about his ex-wife. Bridges does the same, but the softer side comes not from Cogburn's backstory (which is delivered in a sort of rambling afterthought monologue), but from the depictions of his alcoholism. In the first film version, Mattie chides him for his drinking, but in this one, his actions speak much louder. The audience sees him at his lowest points when drunk, whether he is insulting Mattie and La Boeuf or pathetically trying to show off his pistol skills while reeling from a night of drinking. There are no obvious morals presented; Cogburn is a drunk, and we're simply shown the effects of his choices. This is an obvious sentiment, but Bridges is simply one of the best living actors. From one scene to the next, he's tough, playful, and sympathetic, and his body language makes it much more than just a well-written character. Wayne's consistent iciness is replaced with a man whose faults are shown, rather than discussed.

I've long considered Matt Damon to be a truly underrated actor, and while he's much more intense than Glen Campbell was in the role of La Boeuf, he doesn't bring anything new to the character, except for toning down the original "pretty boy" vibe, and making him a little more intense. Portis's novel is said to hint at an attraction between Mattie and La Boeuf, and while it's mildly apparent in this version, Damon doesn't do much except for the occasional stare or glance in her direction. This is not to say that he does a bad job in the film; however, there's really not much to interpret, but there's never a moment where he turns in a bad performance. The issue may be that La Boeuf was poorly written, or written very basically. I thoroughly enjoyed the casting of Barry Pepper as Ned, a role originally played by Robert Duvall. In addition to a strong physical resemblance (at least in the looks of the role), Pepper makes the most of his short screen time as a villain. He sneers, he's direct, but not over-the-top. Ned's mentality is precise, and much like Steinfeld uses precision to create a strong character, Barry Pepper does so to create a thrilling embodiment of Old-West evil. It's a classically-styled job, and very evocative of Lee Van Cleef, arguably the best at portraying physical villainy.

The majority of the film does not carry the hallmarks of a typical Coen Brothers production, but there are the occasional scenes that Coen aficionados will appreciate. In a dark, uncomfortably funny scene, the Coens display the mindsets of nineteenth-century Americans: at the town's hanging, two white inmates are given platforms for their final words, ranging from repentant to defiant; when a Native American inmate begins his final words, the hood is quickly lowered over his head, and he is killed mid-speech. During the journey, Cogburn and Mattie come across a strangely prophetic "medicine man" dressed in bearskins, complete with a bear head fashioned into a winter hat. As the man speaks, he mixes "wisdom" with lunacy, and in the process becomes a noted Coen Brothers character, a mystical being who seems out of place, yet perfectly at home in the Coen universe (other examples include Tommy Lee Jones's partner in No Country For Old Men and the dybbuk in A Serious Man). Toward the film's end, Cogburn is attempting to rush Mattie to medical attention, and the scene is one of the more stunning atmospheres that the brothers have filmed: the characters seem to move in slow motion, whether by horse or on foot. The night sky is almost blinding with stars, filmed in an emotionally dimmed, dream-like state.

The Coen Brothers have created masterful additions to a variety of genres, yet True Grit feels like a simple homage to the classic Western. With the exception of the above examples, the journey of Cogburn, Mattie, and La Boeuf is directed in a very standard fashion, and compared to the Hathaway version, it's almost shocking that so much of the original build-up was cut out, but merely supplied by an older Mattie's voice-over. The suspense in the film works quite well, but the occasional scene seems to pale in comparison to the original. For example, the revelatory confrontation of Quincy and Moon is shot beautifully, but feels rushed. The newer version is filmed at night, whereas the original scene took place in the day, but felt much more suspenseful even in sunlight, as opposed to shadows and firelight. This is a very good film, but given the fact that the Coen Brothers have created characters and scenes that are worthy of the overused phrase "genius," it sometimes felt as if they kept themselves held too far back, and while the story stands on its own for the most part, it feels as if the combination of great acting with more directorial flairs could have made this one of the best films of 2010 instead of just a very good film from any year. Some filmmakers can make their trademarks distracting, but the Coen Brothers are the rare filmmakers who can leave an audience mildly disappointed by doing too little. True Grit may end up with scores of nominations in the upcoming award season, and while it's very well done, with the exception of Bridges and the revelation of Steinfeld, it was created by people who are capable of doing so much more.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Zadie Smith: Beautiful Integrations

I have been much better about this lately, but for a stretch of essays that appeared here, I felt the need to add "explanations" for pieces that I felt weren't as concise, or had glaring issues that I still noticed after editing and posting. I still read the occasional sentence or notice a little piece of syntax that irks me, but for the most part, I let these stand on their own as I move on to other readings and postings for this site. However, I need to put that idea on hold, at least for this opening, only because the self-critiques are (hopefully at least somewhat) related to my latest selection: Zadie Smith's 2009 essay collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. If you glance to the right and look at the label tags, three labels are the most dominant, and two of them give me more than the occasional pause. The label 'criticism' originated to mean literary criticism, but now includes general critiques as well, lumping together two sometimes very different notions under one heading. 'Writing' originated as writing style, but grew into a label that accounts for the rare times that I discuss my own fiction writing, or writing in general. In the past, I've spend long stretches of time editing these blog labels, and while there's much more cohesion, I still make mental notes to make more distinctions. There's an excellent chance that I'm putting way too much thought into these meanings. However, Smith's own forward to the paperback edition of Changing My Mind offers me solace: "I'm forced to recognize that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith (Smith xi-xii)."

My reviews of essays collections have continually leaned towards writers whose fiction I admire, and therefore I assume that their non-fiction will be just as satisfying. I never make the mistake of confusing a writer's fiction from their non-fiction, but going into Zadie Smith's work, I felt as if I was reading her work for the first time; in essence, that's true. I read her debut novel White Teeth when I was around 19, and I remember enjoying it, but would be hard pressed to tell you what it was about. I re-read a lot of works that were lost on me in my late teens and early twenties, but in the majority of those cases, I retained at least a basic mental outline. For some reason, White Teeth almost completely evaporated. So while Zadie Smith's reputation continues to grow, Changing My Mind felt like a discovery of someone new, even though that's not the case at all.

The collection is divided up into five categories: "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering," and none of these labels are misleading. Right away, her literary essays proved to be extremely well-written, with quiet emphasis on her stunning breadth of theory, styles, and, yes, criticism. It's very rare that I read an essay about a book or an author whom I haven't read and feel just as compelled as if I'm reading a piece about one of my favorites, or one with whom I'm greatly familiar. Yes, having a better background on Zora Neale Hurston or E.M. Forster would have provided better illuminations for me, but Smith effortlessly glides between academic deconstructions and more personal opinions, not sacrificing one for the other. Her book reviews never go on tangents, even though all book reviewers (myself included) do that at least once in awhile. Her combination of styles and viewpoints is best evidenced by her remarks on George Eliot's Middlemarch. In the span of less than a full paragraph, Smith comments on historical styles, links it to contemporary writing, and provides historical background on Eliot, and not one word feels out of place or off subject:

"Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is less deceived...Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand. One of the reasons we idolize the nineteenth-century English novel is the way its methods, aims, and expression seem so beautifully integrated. Author, characters, and reader are all striving in the same direction. Eliot, speaking of Dorothea's mind, describes the process this way: 'The reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good.' It is a fine description of what all good novelists try to do, after their own fashion. But Eliot made a religion of this process; it replaced the old-time religion in which she was raised. Her imagination was particularly compelled by those moments when, as we have it in the vernacular, 'the scales fall from our eyes (Smith 33).'"

Depending on a given subject, it's almost startling to feel her shift in tone. Her discussion of literature and film are marked by steady, yet natural hints of wit and personal affections (or lack thereof). When the subject turns serious, especially in "One Week In Liberia," Smith immediately turns into a steadfast journalist, reporting emotional, evocative scenes and happenings, maintaining a beautiful writing style, but scaling it back, letting her gifts of written recreation provide any necessary emotions.


Lunch in La Pointe, the "good restaurant" in Monrovia. The view is of sheer cliff dropping to marshland, and beyond this, blue green waters. During the war the beach was scattered with human skulls. Now it is simply empty. In Jamaica, the tourists marry on beaches like these. They stand barefoot in wedding outfits in white sand owned by German hotel chains and hold up champagne flutes, recreating an image from a brochure. This outcome for Liberia--a normalized, if exploitative, 'tourist economy'--seems almost too good to hope for...Everywhere in Liberia it is the same: there are only the very poor and the very powerful (Smith 129)."

In a seemingly natural combination, her personal essays and journalistic pieces do merge as she writes about her family. In an attempt to help her father discuss his World War II experiences for a public BBC project, these two voices collide, and she's the first to admit it. By doing so, yet another layer is added to an already gripping piece, a sort of "behind the scenes" look at her discussions with her father, in conjunction with a personal narrative about exploring the beaches of Normandy and presenting her father's history of D-Day:

"I was a bad journalist to my father, short-tempered, bullying. He never said what I wanted him to. Each week we struggled as I tried to force his story into my mold--territory previously covered by Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape--and he tried to stop me. He only wanted to explain what had happened to him. And his war, as he sees it, was an accidental thing, ambivalent, unplanned, an ordinary man's experience of extremity. It's not Private Ryan's war or Steve McQueen's war or Bert Scaife's war (of whom more later). It's [her father] Harvey Smith's war. If it embodies anything (Harvey's not much into things embodying other things), it is the fact that when wars are fought, perfectly normal people fight them. Alongside the heroes and martyrs, sergeants and generals, there are millions of average young people who simply stumble into it, their childhood barely behind them (Smith 232)."

The section of "Remembering" is composed of one piece, a remembrance and analysis of the writing of David Foster Wallace (easily the first name I would have mentioned if I had included examples in my opening thoughts on writers of both fiction and non-fiction). In the two years since Wallace's suicide, the reflections on him as a writer and a human being have been emotional, but haven't been much more than typical obituaries. Smith, however, pays tribute to him in the best way, offering analysis of the stories in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, and actively hypothesizing about how Wallace's views on fiction interacted with his actual output. Even with just a small sample of his work being discussed, Smith ruminates on Wallace's mission in beautiful ways, and in the process, struck me about how much the world of literature lost two years ago.

"There is a weird ambient sameness to Wallace's work. He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am? And the strange, quasi-mystical answer was always the same, too. You may have to give up your attachment to the 'self.' I don't mean that Wallace 'preached' this moral in his work; when I think of a moralist I don't think of a preacher. On the contrary, he was a writer who placed himself 'in the hazard' of his own terms, undergoing them as real problems, both in life and on the page (Smith 289)."

So maybe with this review of Smith, I'm essentially asking questions that I already know the answers to, in a way. I have rarely found fault with the essay collections that I've reviewed here, since there have been more than a few that I stopped reading out of frustration or lack of interest, therefore not being in a position to effectively write about them; I at least do my best to see novels through to the end. However, Changing My Mind was a complete surprise in the best of ways. Hopefully in the next year I'll return to White Teeth and reconnect with her fiction, with more memories and evocations than my first reading. Going into this work, essentially knowing nothing but her name and face, I'm going to be much more attuned to Smith's writings. The empty designation to pin on her would be an "accomplished essayist," but in reality, that's true in the best of ways. She never overshadows her subjects, and provides much-needed personal distance when necessary, especially when the subject is not about her. It's a rare objectivity that's often lacking in contemporary non-fiction, but when she does pull herself back into a piece, it's never distracting. And I am applying the labels of 'writing' and 'criticism' to this piece, with their original intentions in mind.

Work Cited:
Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Copyright 2009 by Zadie Smith.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The (Should Be) Hall Of Famer

In any circumstance, December is the harshest month in which to discuss or write about baseball. Even though the 2010 World Series ended less than two months ago, it already feels like a truly distant memory. The winter meetings are under way, and the trades and free-agent signings are being reported quietly (Adam Dunn to the White Sox) and loudly (Jayson Werth's stunning signing with the Washington Nationals). Locally, with the exception of a page or two in the local papers on said winter meetings, baseball in Chicago is a literal afterthought, especially with the Bears leading their division and the Bulls trying to capitalize with their young, talented core. In a perverse paradox, I pass by Wrigley Field during my commute to work, and especially given Chicago's brutal cold snap in the last week, baseball seems so far away, yet so close (pitchers and catchers report in just over two months, much closer, at least subconsciously, than the two months prior since the end of the World Series). The recent death of former Cubs third baseman/announcer Ron Santo makes this off-season middle ground much more poignant. The only real activity around the ballpark comes from people snapping photographs of the candles, Old Style bottles, and signs that have formed outside in remembrance of Santo. I hate to obviously sentimentalize someone's death, but it seemed cruel that he passed just days before the Veteran's Committee elected former GM Pat Gillick to the Hall Of Fame. Santo was never ashamed to lobby the Veteran's Committee on his Hall Of Fame Credentials, especially given the fact that a.) he put up great numbers with the historically mediocre Cubs; if Santo had played with the Yankees or Dodgers, he probably would have been in the Hall years ago, and b.) he played with diabetes throughout his career, eventually having both legs amputated. He was also the greatest, most unabashed homer in broadcasting. When the Cubs were fighting for the playoffs in 1998, Santo's call of a late inning error by outfielder Brant Brown was an eloquent, journalistic "NO! NO! NO! NO!," one that will always be remembered in Cubs history.

I wanted to get that out of the way, since I've been thinking about this essay since before Santo's death. Given the above introduction, the title of this piece, and my status as a Cubs fan, one would assume that this would be a look at Ron Santo; instead, it's a look at a player who was not elected by the Veteran's Committee, and someone who in the last fifteen or so years has not been elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (the BWAA). Admittedly, it's about a player whom I never saw pitch, either live or on television, and whose stats are very good, but just shy of being stellar. However, despite my lack of personal knowledge, I was shocked that Tommy John wasn't elected by Veteran's Committee, along with Gillick.

Despite all of the evidence and commentary that hints to baseball lagging in popularity behind football and basketball, the Baseball Hall Of Fame seems to have the most respect of all the major professional sports, whether this is due to baseball being a game so old that it never pulls itself away from history, or if it's a case of the Baseball Hall Of Fame marketing itself in a much better fashion. The annual announcements, whether by the Veteran's Committee or the BWAA, have all of the hype and excitement of the Academy Awards: who will be named? And just as, if not more importantly, who will be snubbed? Much like the hype or build-up to any award, the anticipation can be just as great as the announcement. For the 2011 inductions, a lot of attention was given to the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and following the lack of votes, just as much attention has been given to his not being selected. Up until a few days ago, I simply assumed that Tommy John would be elected. When that didn't happen, I decided to look at his numbers and status, aided by a website that I've used and loved frequently in the last few years, By going with numbers alone, and given baseball's history-long obsession with statistics, it's wonderful to see how John's numbers both frantically point to and sternly deny his status as a potential Hall Of Fame inductee. He pitched in 760 games over twenty-six seasons (good for 56th all-time, ahead of Hall Of Famer Warren Spahn, but below Hall Of Famer Don Sutton); he won 288 games, just twelve shy of the magic 300 mark (ahead of Bob Gibson, below Lefty Grove); his career ERA was a decent 3.34, but makes for a distant 319th place all-time, ahead of Robin Roberts and just ten spots shy of assumed future Hall Of Famer Roy Halladay). Yes, I'm just throwing numbers out there without any true analysis or concrete thoughts (I'm pretty much doing the same thing that Jayson Stark does every week). Again, numbers are subjective. Anyone can pick a baseball player at random and be shocked at how his numbers in a given category compare, for better or for worse, to players in baseball history. However, my firm belief in John's worthiness of the Hall Of Fame has nothing to do with his statistics, but in reality, everything to do with his statistics. Tommy John belongs in the Hall Of Fame for his longevity, and the fact that not as many people know ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction by its official name; it's much better known as Tommy John surgery.

Some people might (perhaps rightfully) take a step back and say "You think he's deserving of the Hall Of Fame just because his name is synonymous with a surgical procedure?" I say yes, and before I began this essay, a random Google search of just headlines shows that a lot of other people feel the same way. In the truest, non-cliched sense of the phrase, John was a trailblazer. He was the first professional athlete to have the procedure done, and the fact that his name is now attached to what is (at least in baseball circles) a procedure in which the major hassle is just the recovery time, really adds a legacy that is worthy Hall Of Fame, and makes his numbers that much more amazing. Three years after having the surgery, he won twenty games, finished second in Cy Young voting, and helped lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the National League Pennant. This isn't the same as Lou Gehrig having his name attached to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis after his death. Not to downplay Gehrig's condition (which may have been something else entirely), but John proved that success after ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction was possible, in a time when there was almost no hope of recovery from major elbow ligament damage. To use the often-tired phrase, some legitimate future Hall Of Famers have undergone the surgery: John Smoltz, John Franco, and Billy Wagner.

The "proper" close would be to make some obvious comparisons throughout baseball history, given that it's a game that's heavy on "firsts," "after 'x' happened, this happened,' and so on. And it's certain that if Tommy John had not been the first baseball player to undergo the surgery, then someone else would have, and thereby received unofficial naming honor. But even by numbers alone, 288 wins, even if it's just an average of just over eleven wins a year, is proof of John's skill and the fact that dozens of other ballplayers, both famous and under the radar, undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction and end up having healthy, productive careers. Perhaps the Veteran's Committee will end up electing him, perhaps not. But if I, as a quiet writer/baseball fan, can come up with some pretty strong arguments for John's credentials, then surely actual baseball veterans could do the same. As much as baseball is determined by what happens on the field, the happenings off the field can be equally important. For example, Dr. James Andrews, a surgeon who perform the majority of Major League Tommy John surgeries, has been touted as a possible Hall Of Fame inductee, dating back for at least the last three years. When one mentions baseball and technology, there can be wonderful examples of the advances made in the field, advances not named steroids or human growth hormone. If a logical case can be made for a doctor's contributions to the sport, why not the man whose name will forever be linked to the benefits and safety of a career-saving procedure? Imagine a position player having a total of 342 home runs, 1,331 RBIs, and 2,254 hits in a career interrupted by Tommy John surgery.

Actually, that's what Ron Santo did in his entire career with diabetes. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Consuming Consummations: "I Am Love"

The opening scenes of Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love immediately evoked memories of a great film that I was never able to finish. The stunning European architecture, the unabashedly depressing gray and snowfall, and the presentation of a family coming together for a special occasion had me mentally referring to the almost grotesque Christmas scenes in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny And Alexander. I generally love classic and contemporary European cinema, and I was expecting great things from what many would say is one of Bergman's best films. However, I was only able to watch roughly an hour and a half of it before bailing out, and the student in me felt like a philistine for not seeing it through to the end. That said, I felt a pang of trepidation in I Am Love's introductory scenes, all because of the stylistic connections. Of course, I truly didn't expect Guadagnino's film to follow the same path, and I found myself quietly compelled by the early beauty amongst the depressing, hidden wide shots. And whatever I expected in those first twenty minutes, whether outwardly or subconsciously, was put to rest throughout the film's entirety.

The beauty of I Am Love is that it's a film of nuances and blunt emotions, as well as a combination of the expected and the unexpected. The Recchis, a wealthy family with a lucrative textile company, gather for a birthday dinner held for their aging patriarch. Despite their opulent estate and team of cooks and housekeepers, they're completely focused on the party at hand, but there is an undercurrent of worry as to how the grandfather will accept the party. A few subplots are introduced, all of them with strong indications of causing problems: the young son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) is bringing a new girlfriend to the party, a young woman from a less wealthy family; earlier in the day, Edoardo lost a race to a young chef, much to the dismay of his grandfather; and one of the granddaughters gives her grandfather a framed photograph as a gift, when the tradition is that his artistically inclined grandchildren give him paintings for him to hang. Yes, in hindsight, these may seem like laughable, bourgeoisie "problems," but the acting and editing gives these issues true, heightened worry. The audience expects a major fight or blow-up, but it never happens. These subplots give way to the more important outcomes of the dinner party: the grandfather announces his retirement, giving control of the textile company to Edoardo and his son (Edoardo's father) Tancredi. As the party winds down, Antonio, the chef who beat Edoardo, visits with a cake, a sort of peace offering for the results of the earlier competition.

This is an impressive collection of plot points for what is really just the opening of the film, and as the film progresses, a few more come into play as I Am Love jumps ahead to a few months after the party. Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), Tancredi's wife, discovers that her daughter is a lesbian. Edoardo and Antonio (played by the very impressive Edoardo Gabbriellini) become close friends and potential partners in Antonio's dream to open a small restaurant in the elusive Italian countryside. Once again, this assortment of developments could steer the film into a dizzying, Magnolia-esque character study. However, a few of the items I've mentioned above either get put to the side or altogether forgotten, and in so many other instances, this could be viewed as poor film-making. I think I can make these statements without veering into spoiler territory, but the film quickly becomes a study of two different happenings. One, Emma and Antonio begin a heated love affair. Two, Edoardo proves himself to be a genuinely compassionate young man, which leads to tensions as a businessman.

The affair begins and ends with food. The attraction is almost immediate between Antonio and Emma, with the occasional glance and the occasional tic of worry that Tilda Swinton can pull of like no other actress. When dining with the women of the family at Antonio's restaurant, Emma falls for him even more while eating the dish he has prepared. The camera cuts between her face, which is tinted with sexual arousal, and closeups of the meal as it quickly disappears. Food and love/sex have been hallmarks of European cinema for decades now, and Emma's reaction is not played for comedic overindulgence, a la When Harry Met Sally. She's genuinely enamored with the meal, and the realization that it was prepared by Antonio simply makes her feelings that much more heightened. This is an excellent scene, and it becomes much more relevant at the film's conclusion, albeit with drastic consequences. The majority of Emma and Antonio's lovemaking is conventional, for lack of better words, except for their second meeting. Perhaps she viewed their first encounter as a fling and nothing more, but their second time is marked by the realization that more emotions are at stake beyond lust. Antonio undresses her in complete silence, and Emma offers no resistance. Her face is fearful, but her eyes imply that she's falling for Antonio deeply.

I Am Love is not "about" the affair, nor is it "about" the Recchi family as individuals or as a unit. Everything is connected, even if closure never comes to some of the film's potential climaxes. This is the rare film that mixes the everyday with the ambiguous, and while it's tempting to simply apply the labels of "philosophical" and "sociological," there is so much more at stake. Yes, the actions and character decisions have their philosophical undertones, and yes, staging the actions among a wealthy family calls into question ideas of class, emotion, and sociology. However, despite these accuracies, it would be unwise to pigeonhole or confine the film to a select few adjectives.

The acting in I Am Love is nearly perfect and gets a lot of emotional mileage out of understatement. Tilda Swinton's portrayal of Emma is compelling in the most literal sense. The course of the film suggests that she's headed for an emotional breakdown, and while this is true, it's handled very quietly and honestly. Swinton neither overacts or "underacts," and her facial expressions and body language are gripping. Her face can veer from ecstatic to nervous very quickly, but rarely is it obvious. Her eyes widen, her lips get tense, and her shoulders hunch, only hinting at what's going on in Emma's mind. Her Italian accent feels flawless, especially since she's holding her own with native Italian speakers. Flavio Parenti starts Edoardo off as a handsome, entitled young man, but the character goes beyond those stereotypical beginnings. He loves his wife, he's honorable, and he's undoubtedly devoted to Antonio, even though the young chef could have been a rival at the beginning. His failings as a businessman come about only because he's uneasy about layoffs and selling the family's company. These ideas aren't dragged out, but even in Italian cinema, American ideals are presented: nice, honorable people rarely seem to fit the bill as successful company presidents. Edoardo Gabbriellini makes Antonio much more than the standard young love interest. He's not callous about his affair with Emma, and a wonderful scene shows him shaking and fidgeting when they meet following their first tryst.

Guadagnino's direction is playful and creative without being a distraction, and combined with Yorick Le Saux's cinematography, I Am Love is one of the year's most visually gorgeous films. Shadows give way to blinding sunlight, and a lot of the scenes are hidden or filtered, whether through thick countryside foliage, door windows, reflections, or elaborate building designs. Perceptions might be obvious with some of the characters, but how they view everyone else is sometimes left up in the air. Guadagnino directs this idea by hiding what we know is happening (a countryside sex scene, for example), or intentionally making the points of view distracted or confined (below is a shot of Antonio in the kitchen).

The only real production problem in the film is the score by classical composer John Adams. For the most part, it's beautiful, but at times, it's distracting. It blends beautifully with the opening title sequence, which is done through heavy snow. However, a part of the score is played during a love scene between Antonio and Emma. The strings and intensity rise as she gets closer to orgasm, and it gets to the point that it's an insult to perception. We can clearly see that she's aroused, yet the score keeps getting more frantic. I'm not at all versed or educated in music theory or the intuitions of film scoring, but that one scene very nearly brought down the entire score as a whole. Perhaps if it had been done more casually, it might have worked, but for a film in which understatement goes such a long way, a blatant musical accentuation goes against the subtleties.

As this essay may very well prove, I Am Love is one of the more thought-provoking films I've seen this year. However, for the amount of discussion points and plot developments, I feel that I've left quite a few of the film's meanings up in the air or untouched. "Thought-provoking" may seem like a cop-out, but this is a film that works on thoughts, both of the characters, their intentions, and what the viewer ultimately decides should be the film's message. I Am Love is about family, or it's about individuals. It's about contemporary class, or it's about classic emotions. Or, as I mentioned above, it's best to put the ideas of "about" aside, and simply absorb the terrific ambition, casting, and production.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors

Roughly halfway through my reading of Michael Wolraich's Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies About the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior Into a Raging Homosexual, I realized that the majority of my non-fiction readings in the past few months have been political works. I read books based on a variety of emotions or intentions, and the recent political bent has been no different. I read Hunter S. Thompson around the time of the November midterm elections and found some great parallels; I went into Tony Judt's final book with the hope of better understanding his philosophies. My reasons for reading Mr. Wolraich's book might not be as noble, but sometimes, offbeat reasoning can be beneficial. I selected the book based on its title, and because I felt that it would be a quick read before getting into some more complex writings. This could have been an insult to a relatively unknown writer, along with the fact that I knew from the outset that it would lean toward my own political views; in other words, I knew it would be a work that I would digest in agreement. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, bookshelves across the country sag (literally) with left and right-wing rantings. However, in Wolraich, there's a new voice that's often lacking in political discourse. He's not going to win any friends on the right, but he goes into his critiques with a smile and a big dose of research. A lot of these issues are not laughing matters, but sometimes, one has to laugh even in the face of a scary national landscape.

Blowing Smoke presents a lot of examples of conservative paranoia, most of which are linked by the idea of persecution politics. It's not always the case, but for the most part, right-wing supporters and commentators take critiques and dissent very personally, sometimes morphing them into reverse discrimination. Disagreements become persecutions of someone's (in this case, "someone" being the conservative base) livelihood. The below example is a look at the early Christian right's battle against secular life. It's also an excellent example of Wolraich's use of sly humor, noted when he mentions former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry:

"In addition to the IRS and the Department of Education, conservatives hunted down secular humanists in the courts and in nonprofit organizations like the National Education Association, the American Library Association, NOW, the NAACP, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and People For an American Way, to name a few. They also accused secular humanists of controlling the United Nations, Hollywood, and the media. Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, whose political opinions were important because of his coaching record, warned the audience of a massive prayer rally that secular humanism was 'sweeping America (Wolraich 43)."

The notion of being persecuted can also manifest itself as paranoia and conspiracy theories. I would imagine that Wolraich would agree with Charles P. Pierce in the opinion that conspiracies and wildly outlandish ideas are essential parts of the First Amendment. Americans are free to think whatever they'd like. However, while Pierce's entire book was devoted to the notion that the problem starts when the outlandish ideas are thought of as public policy. This is just one of many ideas also presented by Wolraich, that the line between falsehoods, conspiracies, and fringe groups is becoming blurred. A random Google search would reveal many conspiracy theories from both the left and the right, but more and more, the right-wingers are trying to present these notions as facts.

"First, the conspirators plan to deliberately devalue the dollar in order to force Americans to accept a new common currency, called the Amero. (Like the Euro, get it?) The conspirators include the Federal Reserve and numerous foreign entities. Ron Paul speaks vaguely of 'an unholy alliance of foreign consortiums and officials from several governments.' Others name the Rothschilds. Many also suspect King Juan Carlos of Spain for no obvious reason (Wolraich 179)."

Most liberals can just shake their heads at these ideas. But sadly, it does become graver, depending on the subject. It's one thing to feel persecuted when you're disagreed with, and another thing to shamelessly work agendas into serious issues and legislation.

"It is difficult to imagine a more perfect example of right-wing persecution politics than the opposition to the Matthew Shepard Act. A bill designed to discourage hate-fueled violence against homosexuals is represented as a malicious, discriminatory assault on Christians masterminded by the people it was designed to protect. Those who subscribe to this point of view categorically reject the possibility of discrimination against homosexuals in general and Matthew Shepard in particular. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), for example, insisted that Shepard's murder was a simple burglary gone awry. (No homophobia here, folks, just the bloody pulp of a dying gay man tied to a fence, move along) (Wolraich 74)."

Michael Wolraich is a blogger and contributor to other notable websites, including While Blowing Smoke isn't a collection of previously published material, it's refreshing that, in a sea of bad writing, the stigma of a blogger writing a book is slowly being lifted. This is a thought-provoking work, and not the usual reprinting of cute animal photos from the Internet. His writing isn't perfect; he has a tendency to repeat some of his ideas almost verbatim from page to page and between chapters. However, I found his writing to be very refreshing, in the sense that his book is a plea for level-headed thinking, not just a shake of the finger towards the right (although there is plenty of that). Towards the end of the book, he acknowledges the rational, moderate Republicans who do not subscribe to lies and conspiracy. Has Ann Coulter ever done that for liberals? The scary, sad fact is that conservative commentators, especially Glenn Beck, form a tie to conservative politicians and the conservative public. It's at the point that even in-house critiques become lambasted.

"Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) didn't even last twenty-four hours after belittling right-wing media stars. He too apologized and wrote 'Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative giants are voices of the conservative movement's conscience. Every day, millions and millions of Americans--myself included--turn on their radios and televisions to listen to what they have to say, and we are inspired by their words and by their determination (Wolraich 276).'"

In my review of Ill Fares the Land, I cited Tony Judt's opinion that conservative commentators and leaders claim that their views are the majority when they're parroted back by their constituents and audiences. If someone wanted to criticize my enthusiasm for Blowing Smoke, they could easily say that I'm just parroting views that I agree with; hell, I even admitted as much in the first paragraph. However, I wouldn't claim that there's a conspiracy theory to silence my views. Yes, there are fringe groups on the left that have outlandish theories. For example, the liberal majority doesn't think that the George W. Bush administration orchestrated 9/11, but there are handfuls of people who believe this. The fact is, lies are being spread, and voices like Wolraich are not being liberal zombies. Blowing Smoke reminded me of Roger Ebert's stunning essay entitled "Put Up Or Shut Up." One of his quotes that has stuck in my head should be a rallying cry against conservative conspiracies. A difference of opinion is necessary in any discourse, but some people and groups are working to make false claims viewed as unvarnished truth. To close, this is the phrase by Ebert that is a fitting conclusion to any piece like this:

"The time is here for responsible Americans to put up or shut up. I refer specifically to those who have credibility among the guileless and credulous citizens who have been infected with notions so carefully nurtured. We cannot afford to allow the next election to proceed under a cloud of falsehood and delusion."

Work Cited:
Wolraich, Michael. Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving Up Whack-Job Fantasies About the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior Into a Raging Homosexual. Copyright 2010 by Michael Wolraich.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Literary China: Eastern Compromises

"While 'tradition' versus 'modernity' is commonly used to refer to changes that began to take place as China responded to the significant impact of the West, how they should actually be defined within the Chinese context is far from clear."--Yi-Tsi Mei Feuerwerker

Last month, a New York publishing house called Better Link Press released a series of stories and novellas by various authors, all published under the banner of "Stories By Contemporary Writers From Shanghai." These slim volumes, written by a variety of artists virtually unknown outside of The People's Republic, proved impossible for me to resist, even with very little knowledge of modern Chinese writers, either in name or in output. As I've mentioned before, international literature keeps growing stronger and more renowned, especially in the last decade. However, when one thinks of Asian writers, it's hard to name too many not based in Japan, a region that has produced numerous writers, led by Haruki Murakami, with strong readership bases in the United States. I selected one of the translations by Better Link Press almost at random, opting for Zhao Changtian's novella collection entitled Goodbye, Xu Hu! By the mercy of almost creepy timing, I neared the end of my reading when The New Yorker published "Servant Of the State" by Jianying Zha, a long profile on Chinese writer Wang Meng. The combination of these readings has piqued my interest in China from a literary perspective, but has also raised many questions. However, Jianying's essay highlights the fact that China's literary consciousness is beset by more questions than answers.

Goodbye, Xu Hu! is composed of two novellas, the title piece, as well as one entitled "No Explanation Is Necessary." The opening story recaps the meeting of Zhou Shuting, a young soldier in the People's Liberation Army, and Xu Hu, a bright, outgoing young woman. Their romance begins innocently, but ends prematurely, possibly due to the influence of her high-ranking father, and they meet again twenty years later. The chapters alternate between the past and the present, between youthful innocence under heavy government watch and older, wiser people in a modern China that's vastly different from the era of their youth: light descriptions of magnolias intertwine with a world of business, cell phones, and pagers. This premise is intriguing in hindsight, even if, from a Western standpoint, it's a version of an age old story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again. However, after a few pages, I nearly bailed out. Zhao's writing was, at least initially, so simplistic that I didn't know whether it was a case of bad writing or bad translating. Ideas are repeated and rephrased in obvious manners, leading to several passages that are tedious at best.

"I studied this woman. She was dressed elegantly and with care; her makeup was done with fine taste and was very becoming. Everything about this woman bespoke social status and wealth. As I watched her, she became more and more like a stranger to me, and farther from the Xu Hu in my memory. But I couldn't take my eyes off her. The sight of her rekindled a longing for Xu Hu. What had become of Xu Hu? I wondered (Zhao 15)."

With the exception of some VERY basic French, I only read and speak English; therefore, I was hesitant to blame bad translating. Deep in my literary subconscious, I didn't want to have to write negative views of the translator (one Yawtsong Lee), especially given the fact that I don't read Chinese, and even if I did, I didn't have an original version of the text at my disposal. Call it bleeding-heart guilt if you must. However, strictly as an English text, "Goodbye Xu Hu!" is not very engaging. There are hints to literary devotion, but for the most part, even with scenes describing the narrator's time in the People's Liberation Army, politics or government are almost nowhere to be found. Of course, this isn't necessary. "American literature" doesn't denote American government, but rather the American experience, as vague as that phrase can be. However, the story of "Goodbye, Xu Hu!", despite ending on a pleasantly, intentionally open-ended note, doesn't do anything. Is this really the best of Shanghai's literary population? Perhaps, or perhaps not. While it makes no explicit mention of Shanghai, Jianying's "Servant Of the State" explains that a lot of Chinese commentators are not thrilled with the majority of Chinese fiction. Wang Meng, a prolific, respected/hated Chinese writer, is quoted as saying that Chinese literature is "at its best of times." However:

"[Wang's] remarks were greeted with derision on the Chinese Internet. One blogger compared contemporary Chinese literature to Chinese manufactured goods: low price, high quantity, little added value, no brand (Jianying 60)."

This is a harsh assessment, but I have to apply it to "Goodbye, Xu Hu!" However, the novella "No Explanation Is Necessary" is much more satisfying, telling the story of a Chinese hospital janitor, his (again) lost love, but with more compelling mysteries beneath the surface. A Chinese journalist is intrigued by the affable, well-read janitor at the hospital where her father is being treated. She discovers that the janitor's story is one of wealth, loss, family issues, and relationships. His re-telling provides some excellent bursts of real emotion, ones that were glaringly missing in "Goodbye, Xu Hu!" These emotions also have international appeal, given our current economic woes.

"After putting down the phone, I sat alone for two hours in the room until Xiao Qiong came back. In those two hours my head seemed at once crowded with thoughts and yet empty. In fact no amount of thinking was helpful under the circumstances; I had been wiped out. In the wake of my divorce proceedings, I had left the house to my ex-wife and had moved into my office. When I had a woman with me for some length of time, as with Xiao Qiong this time, I would stay in a company house. After bankruptcy and liquidation, everything, including real estate and the car, would have to go to the bank. I wouldn't even have a place to stay (Zhao 166)."

Perhaps my previous notion that Chinese literature shouldn't evoke Chinese government is impossible. Since the Chinese ruling party is so heavily influential, and so quick to strike down dissenters (Jianying also profiles Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Nobel Prize winner and a frequent critic of China's government), it might be difficult to separate Chinese creativity from the shadow of intense government control. In Jianying's profile, Wang is criticized for his compromises and his lifelong siding with China's right and left. One of the comments on Liu struck me as relevant to Zhao's stories, especially given how I was torn between the notion of bad translating and bad writing.

"[Liu] claimed that there was 'nothing good' to say about mainland Chinese authors, not 'because they were not allowed to write but because they cannot write.' For an iconoclast like Liu, cultural critique and political reform were part of the same struggle (Zianying 64)."

I found my opening quotation from the opening pages of Ideology, Power, Text: Self-Representation and the Peasant "Other" in Modern Chinese Literature. I've done very basic research, but Feuerwerker makes the compelling case (at least in application to my readings of Zhao) that contemporary Chinese literature is a balance between respecting the views/origins of the Chinese peasant and the modern, affluent business-minded persona. The janitor in "No Explanation Is Necessary" is a literal interpretation of this hypothesis. He's open and unashamed of his forays between wealth and poverty; whether or not Zhao meant this as an interpretation of the peasant "other" can only be explained by the author. For now, I only have the text and some criticism to go by. Exhaustive web searches for Better Link Press and Zhao Changtian have proved to be fruitless; Better Link Press has no official website, but only a Hotmail e-mail address listed on the copyright page. Jianying's essay is enormously helpful, but in reality, it only scratches the surface. Is Zhao an iconoclast like Liu? Is he an obedient "court poet," a term used by Wang's critics? Perhaps the publication of Goodbye, Xu Hu! will be Zhao's only English translation. Perhaps more research into contemporary Chinese literature will yield more answers. For now, Jianying's essay provides a succinct look into a dynamic (for better or for worse) literary niche. Zhao's writings left a lot to be desired, but was it truly his fault? Or was it due to poor translation and/or government oversight? The phrase "the mysterious East" has been used for decades, often in slyly racist terms. In this case, there's a lot of mystery, and in all reality, time will tell if Chinese writers are victims of fear or a general lack of layers.

Works Cited:

Jianying Zha. "Servant Of the State." The New Yorker. November 8th, 2010.

Zhao Changtian. Goodbye, Xu Hu! Copyright 2010 by Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fear and Loathing, Past and Present

For the past month, I've been reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 in little bursts, and I coincidentally finished it a couple of days before the 2010 midterm elections. Even before completing it, the phrase "dynamic equilibrium" kept popping up in my head. While I'm sure it has been used in social contexts before, my introduction to the idea came in one of my high school physics classes. I very nearly failed the class, but the definition of dynamic equilibrium amazed me at the time in philosophical ways, rather than scientific. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thompson's book is full of passages that, while discussing names from the past, could very easily apply to today's political landscape. I've read many articles that attempt to pinpoint the moment in which American politics became such a divide between ideologies, dominated by media (both left and right-wing), and left discussions behind in favor of smear campaigns and, for all intents and purposes, name-calling. In harsh reality, it's been that way for a long time.

"No, this would never do. Not for George McGovern--at least not in May of '72, and probably never. He has spent the past week traveling around Nebraska and pausing at every opportunity to explain that he is flatly opposed to the legalization of marijuana. He is also opposed to putting people in prison for mere possession, which he thinks should be re-classified as a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
And even this went down hard in Nebraska. He came into this state with a comfortable lead, and just barely escaped with a six percentage-point (41 percent to 35) win over Hubert Humphrey--who did everything possible, short of making the accusations on his own, to identify McGovern as a Trojan Horse full of dope dealers and abortionists (Thompson 202-203)."

Smear campaigns? Check. Politicians carefully dancing around issues lest they offend every side of said issue? Check. This description of McGovern (the eventual Democratic Presidential candidate in 1972) mirrors that of President Obama. Before taking office, Obama presented many platforms on gay rights and marriage equality; after taking office, I remember watching one of his speeches, and when he was called upon his views on gay marriage, he was almost at a loss for words, coming up with vague comments on equality and domestic partner benefits. I fully believe that President Obama supports gay and lesbian citizens. McGovern apparently didn't demonize marijuana, but in both cases, it's an example of having to be, well, political. With the opposition ready to jump on your every statement, speaking in cliches and non-opinions becomes the norm.

Thompson supported McGovern, and while the 1972 election was criticized for the way journalists and writers placed themselves among the candidates, Thompson never put McGovern on a pedestal. Like any candidate, he had his strengths and weaknesses. However, one gets the feeling that, much like John Kerry in 2004, the Democratic nominee was viewed not as the best candidate, but rather the anti-thesis to to Republican incumbent. The loss aside, Kerry didn't exactly sweep voters off their feet; rather, it was a case of "well, we need somebody besides George W. Bush." Despite the GOP wins this week, perhaps the outlook for Obama will be better in 2012. Will the following statement hold true for him? Every recent President has had his share of scandal or crisis. The problem with the critiques of President Obama is that the criticisms have veered into conspiracy and false accusations. If the economy brightens, perhaps this opinion from Thompson will hold true for a Democratic President.

"Any incumbent President is unbeatable, except in a time of mushrooming national crisis or a scandal so heinous--and with such obvious roots in the White House--as to pose a clear and present danger to the financial security and/or physical safety of millions of voters in every corner of the country (Thompson 466)."

Even before Nixon's re-election, the somber realization was that right-wing ideologies were taking hold in drastic numbers. Some of the passages in Fear and Loathing are extremely prophetic, even in a time before Tea Parties and anti-Obama backlash. Some of the similarities are tame:

"The pervasive sense of gloom among the press/media crowd in Miami was only slightly less obvious than the gung-ho, breast-beating arrogance of the Nixon delegates themselves. That was the real story of the convention: the strident, loutish confidence of the whole GOP machinery, from top to bottom (Thompson 352)."

And some of the similarities are scary, whether looking back or looking ahead:

"Until then, it had not been considered entirely fashionable to go around calling ex-Attorney General John Mitchell a 'prophet' because of his smiling prediction, in the summer of 1970, that 'This country is going so far to the right that you won't recognize it (Thompson 467).'"

These past and present connections are the bulk of what I wanted to present in this post. These may be basic or, if one wanted to be particularly harsh, mere generalizations of party politics. When I looked back at my previous essay on Hunter S. Thompson, I realized that today, just as much as two years ago, he's a difficult writer to truly analyze. He's long been one of my favorites, and as I mentioned before, he's the sort of writer whose image can cloud his actual output. He was opinionated and rarely objective, but he would have been the first one to admit this. But lost (again) in his public image was the fact that he was a brilliant journalist, and his intelligence on his various subjects was unmatched. He described himself as a political junkie, and made the important note that, no matter how one is affiliated with politics or an election, whether as a candidate or a journalist, it brings out the worst in people, sometimes to the breaking point. And really, since all of us are affected by politics, it's one of the few realms in which its impossible to remain emotionally detached. That said, given Thompson's rancor, I would have loved to read his thoughts on Sarah Palin or Rand Paul. I'm sure his opinions on them would have made his views on Richard Nixon seem like a pat on the back.

Work Cited:
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. Copyright 1973 by Hunter S. Thompson.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A.S. Byatt's Poetic Justices

Taking a step back, it's unnerving to imagine what A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel Possession could have been had it been written by someone else. When its themes, genres, and progressions are taken at strict superficial value, we're presented with a book that is heavy on genre fiction, from mystery to thriller, a slight dash of paranormal implications, and a group of characters that virtually wear signs that read "heroic" or "villainous." The full title is Possession: A Romance, and there's plenty of that, from the classic definitions to the contemporary notions. Perhaps I'm beating around the bush--the elements of this novel could have been combined to create a terrible piece, or a work that would be looked at as heavy on the potential, but lacking serious substance. However, when taken in after a full reading, it's just as easy to see how talented A.S. Byatt is as a novelist.

Possession tells the story of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, two young scholars who come together to research the previously unknown romance between two regarded Victorian poets, Henry Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Michell is a research assistant to an English Ash scholar, and during his research, he comes across two undated drafts of a letter to a female acquaintance, written in Ash's handwriting. They aren't exactly love letters, but they are undocumented pieces and do hint to the possibility of emotions beyond regular salutations.

"Dear Madam,
Since our extraordinary conversation I have thought of nothing else. It has not often been given to me as a poet, it is perhaps not often given to human beings, to find such ready sympathy, such wit and judgment together. I write with a strong sense of the necessity of continuing our talk, and without ask if it would be possible for me to call on you, perhaps one day next week
(Byatt 7)."

Through his inquiries, Roland hypothesizes that Ash's letters were written to LaMotte, and he meets Maud, a feminist scholar, and even before they meet, when her name is first mentioned, the reader has a feeling that something will blossom between the two characters. They're joined by a passion for their respective subjects, and, much like the uncovered romance between the two deceased poets, the reader has to be patient and wait for revelations to be unfolded. Sure, most of them may seem obvious, but Byatt is careful to balance the expected plot developments with the occasional unexpected twist. Once Roland and Maud begin their joint research, the project takes them to LaMotte's former home, where more letters are unearthed. The potential revelations are sure to have a domino effect throughout the literary field, since Ash was supposedly devoted to his wife, and LaMotte, while herself a gifted feminist poet, was thought to have lived her life in social and sexual seclusion. Much like a classic British drama, more characters are introduced, all of whom have their own interests and agendas in the Ash-LaMotte correspondence. In returning to the notion of the "heroic" and "villainous" characters, an excellent example is the terrifically named Mortimer Cropper, an American rival of the professor (James Blackadder) who employs Roland. His introduction is such that, while he's a definite foil, he's created in very sly, revealing tones.

"His face in the mirror was fine and precise, his silver hair most exquisitely and severely cut, his half-glasses gold-rimmed, his mouth pursed, but pursed in American, more generous than English pursing, ready for broader vowels and less mincing sounds. His body was long and lean and trim; he had American hips, ready for a neat belt and the faraway ghost of a gunbelt (Byatt 105)."

For such a varied plot, Byatt's writing shines in various formats. To begin with the most stunning example, she meticulously "reprints" pages upon pages of poems that were written by the fictional poets. This goes beyond a simple recreation. The poems are beautifully crafted and could easily be actual Victorian citations, not just well-crafted homages to the style. While nobody could blame her for showing off, she's not doing so. Byatt's poems compliment the novel, adding further metaphors to the imagined letters between Ash and LaMotte. To have written such a complex, nuanced novel without fictionalized poetry is a marvel; the combination of the two alone, in this single book, is enough to elevate Byatt's placement among the world's best novelists, male or female.

"What is a House? So strong--so square
Making a Warmth inside the Winds
We walk with lowered eyelids there
And silent go--behind the blinds

Yet hearts may tap like loaded bombs
Yet brains may shrill in carpet-hush
And windows fly from silent rooms
And walls break outwards--with a rush--


Byatt also provides many salutes and winks to the world of academia, specifically in the field of literary and poetic studies. Anyone who has spent any time in a university English Department will appreciate the sometimes tedious nature of research and the understanding that business and funding can sometimes usurp creativity and the bigger picture. The new histories that Roland and Maud uncover, and the way it unfolds, is done very dramatically, almost wistfully. The reality is that a major discovery like that would almost never happen, and the ensuing drama, while sexy, would likely be wishful thinking in real life. However, Byatt rarely veers into truly unrealistic happenings. The bulk of Possession is devoted to the poems and letters of the poets, with the plot serving as a link between the chronology. So while most English majors and PhD candidates would love to have an adventure like Roland and Maud's, the reality is that the true excitement comes from the reading and the research. This serves as excellent ammunition to people who view the Humanities as a waste of time and money. This skepticism is vocalized more than once in the novel, along with the realistic tedium that flares up in even the most passionate personal studies.

"'Funny way to spend your life, though, studying another chap's versifying. We had a sort of poet in this house once. I expect you'd think nothing to her. Terrible sentimental stuff about God and Death and the dew and fairies. Nauseating (Byatt 88).'"

"Much of his writing met this fate. It was set down, depersonalised, and then erased. Much of his time was spent deciding whether or not to erase things. He usually did (Byatt 325)."

Could some of the letters and poems been scaled back, quantity-wise? It's possible, but then again, it would have taken away from Byatt's definite, albeit fictionalized, bibliography. The Victorian words, poems, and even the names of critical texts feel terrifically authentic, and much like real bibliographies, sometimes the extent can be daunting, if not exasperating. This intense attention to detail, coupled with the beautiful writing, is what elevates Possession beyond the aforementioned realm of disposable genre fiction. For a work so steeped in the classics, it's definitely experimental even in the face of the classic story arc. However, while many writers would have the audacity to attempt this, only a select few would be able to make it feel this authentic. There are many plot elements that I haven't explored in this essay, but much like what the characters go through, the joy is in the surprises.

Work Cited:
Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance. Copyright 1990 by A.S. Byatt.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Ill Fares the Land:" Tony Judt's Tough Love

My readings of the late Tony Judt (1948-2010) border, quantity-wise, on the very slim. I've taken in a handful of his essays this past year that were published in The New York Review Of Books, and despite having a lot of catching up to do, his writing style lends itself to a range of feelings. To use a poor metaphor to describe a fine essayist, my introductions to Judt's work was like my introduction to fine scotch. Both educations started off tentatively until the nuances came to fruition, and they took a little bit of time. Judt was a public intellectual in the truest sense, rather than taking the normal pattern of being a talking head. He proved himself to be one of those rare writers with the ability to express complex views while both making them accessible and not dumbing down his tone or language. While it might have made sense to read more of his essays, and therefore gain a better, deeper understanding of his themes, I decided to read Ill Fares the Land, the final book published in his lifetime.

Ill Fares the Land is a rather philosophical look at the sociological, political, and financial woes that have been defining the twenty-first century as of late. This very basic synopsis might make a potential reader take a step back, given that there are literally dozens, if not hundreds of books available that have made attempts to outline or "solve" the American setbacks. Also, much like the political "discourse" as of late, a great too many of these books are carbon-copied conservative screeches and scare-mongering. For a book that has received quiet attention, some of it critical in the past few months, I was struck by how, even with liberal leanings, Judt's writing casts equal blame on both the Left and the Right for the state of the world today. However, said blame never falls into outlandish accusations or name-calling. Judt gives his opinions, but does so with some much-needed constructive criticism. Even from the beginning, the reader gets the feeling that Ill Fares the Land will be an impassioned plea rather than a fall into ridiculous antics. Judt manages to critique both sides in one carefully crafted thought.

"We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come. And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of 'capitalism' and its critics; usually identified with one or another form of 'socialism.' By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides (Judt 2-3)."

Even in the midst of his histories, examples, and suggestions, Judt makes a recurring theme of the fact that, no matter how saccharine this sentiment may be, we're all in this together. People will always have their own political leanings, the pursuit of wealth will always lends itself to greed and divided classes, and so on and so forth. But, for anybody even remotely interested or concerned about the state of intelligence and communication, Judt's simplicity carries a major punch. From Curtis White to Charles Pierce, I've written about many books that (rightly) decry the lack of intelligence in America's population and mainstream. Judt takes this down a timely path, implicitly decrying the lack of intelligence, but more explicitly decrying the lack of true discourse and discussion in today's political world, especially with all of the problems facing everyone.

"Our disability is discursive: we simply do not know how to talk about these things any more. For the last thirty years, when asking ourselves whether we support a policy, a proposal or an initiative, we have restricted ourselves to issues of profit and loss--economic questions in the narrowest sense. But this is not an instinctive human condition: it is an acquired taste (Judt 34)."

Ideas like these are what elevate this book above the fray; Judt explains that the focus needs to be on human rather than strictly financial levels. However, the financial world needs a lot of work. Using outside quotes and his own views, he states the obvious, yet overlooked, realization that a financial system that consistently widens the gap between the wealthy and the poor is a troublesome system, not one that deserves a shrug and a claim that "oh well, that's capitalism for you...if you don't like it, too bad." He offers his sentiments on the restructuring/redistribution of wealth, but also goes to the basics: economics and finances can be confusing to a layperson (I personally consider myself an excellent example), and not much has been said for more education and understanding of these issues. Again, his writing highlights thoughts that should be common sense but all too often get clouded over.

"Behind every cynical (or merely incompetent) banking executive and trader sits an economist, assuring them (and us) from a position of unchallenged intellectual authority that their actions are publicly useful and should in any case not be subject to collective oversight. Behind that economist and his gullible readers there stand in turn participants in long-dead debates (Judt 105)."

Judt does an excellent job of balancing out his examples. The focus is on the United States, but he does offer historic examples of good and bad financial situations in England, Ireland, and China, to name a few. It goes along with his notion that our current situation simply needs the possibility of what might be outlandish restructuring. At the very least, people need to be open to discussing and thinking about other avenues of change, or other ways of addressing them. If any other public system (he tends to favor and sometimes rely too heavily on the example of public railways) were faltering, it would be relatively easy to address the problem and fix it. But with societies, the ever-growing poor class, and the divide in political life, finding answers can be daunting. However, despite his ease at offering tough, honest condemnations of all political avenues, he does reserve, towards the end, a searing look at the right-wing path and the way discourse is done in that specific arena.

"The perverse effects of this suppression of genuine debate are all around us. In the US today, town hall meetings and 'tea parties' parody and mimic the 18th century originals. Far from opening debate, they close it down. Demagogues tell the crowd what to think; when their phrases are echoed back to them, they boldly announce that they are merely relaying popular sentiment (Judt 172)."

Ill Fares the Land is just as much a written critique of expression as it is of the way society is being run. The above example aside, Judt's argument is that we need to go beyond the traditional paths, as well as explore certain models in their true definitions instead of their twisted meanings in modern discussions (socialism, for example). He's not shy about his opinions, but is also understanding that a lot of people will sit back and assume that everything will right itself again. Divisions between people will always remain, but as he states so eloquently, if they keep growing more strained, the problems that face everyone will only be more divisive. The idea of community has been lost, and its repair is just as, if not more, important as the repair of economic fractures. However, after time, it becomes all too apparent how tightly linked these intangible ideas are.

"If we remain grotesquely unequal, we shall lose all sense of fraternity; and fraternity, for all its fatuity as a political objective, turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself. The inculcation of a sense of common purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the linchpin of any community. Acting together for a common purpose is the source of enormous satisfaction (Judt 185)."

Another quote from a vastly different source also works as an appropriate closing to these ideas. In an old Calvin & Hobbes strip, in which the two discuss human nature, Calvin asks: "Do you think we'll get smarter?" Hobbes' reply? "That's one of two possibilities."

Work Cited:
Judt, Tony. Ill Fares the Land. Copyright 2010 by Tony Judt.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...