I love Jonathan Lethem, and I have an unusually high tolerance for quirkiness, but I really wasn't invested in this...story? fable?...until the very e...moreI love Jonathan Lethem, and I have an unusually high tolerance for quirkiness, but I really wasn't invested in this...story? fable?...until the very end. The narrator is engaging enough, and there are nice absurd flourishes, but the ending is where it's at, and then it's over so quickly that it almost hurts. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who isn't already a fan of Lethem, and even then I think I'd only recommend it to fans of his earlier, more "genre-y" works...and even THEN I'm still not entirely sure because I'm a big fan of the genre-y stuff and I'm obviously rather conflicted about this one.
Reading this book wore me out. I like Ballard, I think he's a writer who really gets technology, modernity, isolation, etc., and I'm pretty non-judgme...moreReading this book wore me out. I like Ballard, I think he's a writer who really gets technology, modernity, isolation, etc., and I'm pretty non-judgmental about even sort of far-out fetishes, but what kept flashing through my brain was GRATUITOUS GRATUITOUS WHEN WILL THIS BOOK END ARRGH. And I don't even mean that it was gratuitous with the sex-and-accidents stuff (although it was)--the blunt, increasingly inelegant repetition of Ballard's arguments made a compelling idea, after a certain point, just tedious. In much the same way that there are only so many words for various parts of the human anatomy (and, dear lord, if I see the words "groin" or "pubis" again in my lifetime it will be too soon), maybe there are only a fixed number of ways of looking at a car crash. (less)
When the subject of Todd Haynes arises in conversation--and I have this funny way of forcing the subject to arise more frequently than one might imagi...moreWhen the subject of Todd Haynes arises in conversation--and I have this funny way of forcing the subject to arise more frequently than one might imagine--I tend to get all crazy and arm-wave-y and hyperbolic. (For example, I say things like the following: "He's the only American filmmaker who's done anything interesting in the past fifty years" and "Todd Haynes is smarter than all of us put together, so you just take back what you said about Velvet Goldmine being a mess because Todd knows what he's doing.")
But I'm going to try to control myself for a minute so that I can write this review without, like, rushing off to watch Safe for the millionth time.
It's obvious that this collection, like all other collections of criticism about a single director, takes auteur theory as its point of departure. What's interesting, though, is that it's criticism about works that are already drenched in theory, that are already engaged with the very concerns that criticism usually attempts to tease out.
This is a director whose short film Dottie Gets Spanked isn't just about a young boy's fascination with spanking--it actually quotes Freud's "A Child is Being Beaten." Far from Heaven isn't just a melodrama that borrows some visual and narrative cues from Douglas Sirk's films; it plays with Sirk and with Fassbinder's takes on Sirkian melodrama, and it's not just indebted to Fassbinder's films but to Fassbinder's essay about Sirk's films. I mean, come on, this isn't Quentin Tarantino-style fanboy pastiche auteurism--Haynes is a different beast entirely.
So what I like about this collection is that it attempts to deal with its subject by pushing beyond the obvious connections to the theories (postmodern, feminist, queer, genre, etc.) that are embedded in the films themselves. I particularly enjoyed Marcia Landy's "Storytelling and Information in Todd Haynes' Films," both essays about queer childhood, and especially Nick Davis' "'The Invention of a People': Velvet Goldmine and the Unburying of Queer Desire," which is going to be the thing that forces me finally, at long last, to read Gilles Deleuze.
I haven't yet read the other collection of essays about Haynes (the Camera Obscura one) so I can't compare the two, but this is a pretty exciting collection for anyone who's into his work, or into contemporary cinema in general.(less)
At some point in the eighties, Alasdair Gray had a chat with Kathy Acker, who asked him why he'd never written a story about a woman. Gray's response...moreAt some point in the eighties, Alasdair Gray had a chat with Kathy Acker, who asked him why he'd never written a story about a woman. Gray's response was that "he could not imagine how a woman felt when she was alone." He tries, though, with Something Leather, to imagine the lives of women and how they might intersect (socially, sexually, economically) over the span of several decades. There are moments that are right on, and others that...I guess I'll be charitable and say that they miss the mark by ever so few miles. Still, it's a funny book that's kind of tender and weird, and it's really not a bad read.
The epilogue and the postscript (uh, spoiler alert?) are the most characteristically Alasdair Gray parts--in the epilogue he basically twists the story into the quest for an independent Scotland, and in the postscript he asserts that the three chapters of kinky sex are second fiddle to the "ten chapters of ordinary social kinkiness." Leave it to Gray to close a book that begins with a leather skirt with the declaration that he "would prefer a Britain where affections are not shaped by the unequal amounts of money we own."(less)
I love Donald Barthelme, but this novella didn't captivate me the way his writing usually does. The premise (King Arthur fights World War II) is certa...moreI love Donald Barthelme, but this novella didn't captivate me the way his writing usually does. The premise (King Arthur fights World War II) is certainly great and Barthelmian, and there were chuckle-out-loud moments aplenty (particularly those that involved multiple characters falling into a swoon simultaneously--it's so rare to read a good swoon scene these days!), but I wasn't wholly grabbed by it.
Still, the dialogue is very sharp and often wisely absurd, so that's fun to read. Speaking of swooning:
"'I too am gloomy, in these days,' said the Red Knight. 'It's a combination of the war and my acute historical consciousness.'
"'Good sir, I think you not half so sorrowful as myself.'
"'I am more sorrowful than any man I ever met,' said the Red Knight, 'my acute historical consciousness being widened and deepened by my advanced years. With all respect, your sorrow is but japes to my sorrow.'
"Then Sir Roger swooned away from sorrow, and woke and swooned again, and every time he woke he swooned anew."
(Also, the Grail is the quest for the bomb: "In former times bombing had some military purpose or other--taking out a railyard, smashing the enemy's factories, closing down the docks, that sort of thing. Today, not so. Today, bombing is meant to be a learning experience. For the bombed. Bombing is pedagogy. A citizen with a stick of white phosphorous on his roof begins to think quite seriously about how much longer he wants to continue the war.") (less)
When I was in San Francisco in October, I visited SFMOMA and wandered through a Joseph Cornell exhibition. It was kind of amazing: boxes, found object...moreWhen I was in San Francisco in October, I visited SFMOMA and wandered through a Joseph Cornell exhibition. It was kind of amazing: boxes, found objects, scraps, photographs of ballerinas and movie stars, all pieced together to create dioramas of a vision of life in the twentieth century. In this collection of stories, Robert Coover pieces together his own visions of "grand hotels" in the style of Joseph Cornell--weird celestial rest stops, sand fountains around which lovers pursue each other, boxes that are made up of the stuff of modern life but exist somehow outside of it.
Coover can be a pretty rigorous postmodernist, and the pastiche-y, collage-y tricks shine through to great effect in these pieces. Where he becomes really interesting, I think, is in his fascination with the architects of the grand hotels. All of them are troubled in some way, or regard their masterworks very differently than the hotels' visitors do. It would be difficult to overlook Coover's tributes to Cornell, and not to see the reclusive artist in the architect whose "whole being [is] consumed by his ravenous sensibility, and by his ambition, not for worldly success, but to break through to what lay beyond architecture, which he held to be at the heart of the human enterprise, autonomous and inclusive of all other fields of art, and contained by none" ("The Grand Hotel Crystal Cage"). Cornell is also there in the "notoriously humble" architect who is "credited with reassembling the hotel's constituent and fragmentary elements into an aesthetically satisfying whole, even if not a completely stable one" ("The Grand Hotel Home, Poor Heart"). The instability of juxtaposition, for both Coover and Cornell, is where the fun is. (less)
The Proust Questionnaire is actually two questionnaires--one that Marcel Proust answered in 1886 in the pages of a friend's journal ("Confessions: An...moreThe Proust Questionnaire is actually two questionnaires--one that Marcel Proust answered in 1886 in the pages of a friend's journal ("Confessions: An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, etc."), and the second, completed four years later when he was a wise, worldly man of twenty. This compiles Proust's answers to both questionnaires (in his glorious handwriting, no less), plus the responses to either version of the questionnaire from Brigitte Bardot, Luc Sante, Alain de Botton, Rosanna Arquette, Tony Parker, Diane von Furstenberg, and others. Some of the replies are unsurprising (the most disliked characters in history tend to be dictators), some are funny (Luc Sante's favorite occupation is "professional namer (giving names to, e.g., cars, drugs, asteroids)"), and some are just curious (both Bardot and Tony Parker list their favorite names as Emma and Linea). In the spirit of the source material, there are plenty of blank questionnaires in the back to pass around to friends--so, mes amis, you're all on notice: start thinking about your pet aversions and how you'd like to die!
"She gave an affirmative signal with her eyes, as if to tell me, yes, I had to respond to the salute. Was it an order or a plea? I couldn't have said....more"She gave an affirmative signal with her eyes, as if to tell me, yes, I had to respond to the salute. Was it an order or a plea? I couldn't have said. Surely, at that moment, it would be an act of complicity at a level far deeper than that of political opportunism. But what most convinced me to act in a fashion so opposed to my convictions was the thought that she was asking me to do it 'for love of her.' Somehow, with that affirmative sign of her eyes and head, she was saying to me: Yes, only for a moment, to please me, become a Fascist."
A moody young man locks eyes with a beautiful young woman. He believes that she's possessed by the same despair that torments him, the despair that he longs to "stabilize" (by which he maybe means "write about it in his novel"). He falls in love instantly (as the moody young men so often do), but the woman is on holiday with her husband, and so the two embark upon a bizarre courtship consisting of glances, stares, and underlined passages of Nietzsche.
In general, I have little tolerance for the moody young men and their infatuations, and I tire quickly of the breathless descriptions of the stunning creatures that so captivate them. But this book is so much more than that--what begins as a coup de foudre evolves, through Moravia's steady, elegant (and even surprising) storytelling, into an exploration of psychology, desire, and politics in the darkening shadow of fascism. It's very twentieth-century and very modernist in a lot of ways, but it's still surprising and uncomfortably real.
Did you know that things can be "[adjective] as teeth"? Such as "cute as teeth" or "queer as teeth"? This is news to me!
Some excerpts from my favorite...moreDid you know that things can be "[adjective] as teeth"? Such as "cute as teeth" or "queer as teeth"? This is news to me!
Some excerpts from my favorite ads:
"When you do that voodoo that you do so well, I invoke 16th-century witchcraft laws and have you burned at the stake."
"Eager-to-please woman (36) seeks domineering man to take advantage of her flagging confidence. Tell me I'm pretty, then watch me cling."
"Look at my fingers! They're moving like wondrous vipers!"
"During intercourse, I can list Brian Eno's ten favourite books in reverse order. Most women, however, only let me get to number 7 (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language - Robin Fox). M, 34, WLTM woman to 35 willing to let me get to at least number 3 (The Evolution of Cooperation - Robert Axelrod)."
"This column is a ziggurat of heartache and I am its High Priest."
1. In the 33 1/3 series, published by Continuum, assorted writers, critics, rockers, and others write about various "classic" al...moreA few things to know:
1. In the 33 1/3 series, published by Continuum, assorted writers, critics, rockers, and others write about various "classic" albums--older classics like The Velvet Underground and Nico, newer classics like In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Sometimes these small books are works of fiction inspired by the albums, or track-by-track examinations of the music or lyrics, or obsessive explorations of the mythology behind the band and/or the nature of musical fandom.
2. John Darnielle is the man behind the Mountain Goats. He's spent the past, like, very nearly two decades making alternate-universe folk songs: songs about people and the horrible or beautiful things we do to each other and ourselves. He's also written extensively about music at Last Plane to Jakarta. Additionally--and this biographical tidbit is maybe important when thinking about the book at hand--he used to work as a nurse in some sort of psychiatric care facility.
Okay, the scene thus established:
This is the story of Roger, a teenager who's stuck in a psychiatric center for miscellaneously troubled youth, and he's been ordered to keep a journal, which he recognizes is a bullshit thing to demand of someone, forcing them to spill out all of their feelings to help them "get better" but then taking the journal away every night and using the supposedly personal stuff revealed in the journal against them at every opportunity. All Roger wants--aside from being able to return to his normal life on the outside, which even he recognizes wasn't all that normal or even enjoyable--is to get his Walkman and his tapes back. He begins to write about this in his journal, and to write in particular about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, in the hopes that he can make his tormentors understand that keeping music away from him is exactly the opposite of what he actually needs, if the goal of this enterprise is indeed to make him "get better."
It's also the story of Roger, ten years later, writing a series of letters to the same guy who read his journal all those years ago and decided that Roger needed to be transferred to the state facility with all the other really desperate cases.
And then, too, it's the story of how music can give us what we need, even if we're damaged, or if we're living in a damaged place, or if we know that no one else can understand who we are or how we hurt. It's about finding hope and peace "in places where the tones are really dark and the images are explosive and scary."
If you're a fan of the Mountain Goats, you're probably familiar with "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton." This book is a worthy companion to that song, and it's hard to read this without thinking of Jeff and Cyrus and their death metal ambitions:
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts they were headed for stage lights and leer jets, and fortune and fame. So in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names.
This was how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he'd never be famous. And this was why Jeff, in the letters he'd write to his friend, helped develop a plan to get even.
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don't expect him to thank or forgive you. The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.
What a strange collection of stories. This wasn't at all what I expected, although I'd always heard about Grace Paley in conjunction with others of my...moreWhat a strange collection of stories. This wasn't at all what I expected, although I'd always heard about Grace Paley in conjunction with others of my favorite writers (esp. Donald Barthelme). I don't know why I picked up this book today--I think it was a mention of her name in a Bookforum article that I read while I ate lunch and watched the snowstorm--but it was just right. I've been thinking about writing lately and about all of the not-writing I've been doing, and maybe this is just the kick in the ass I've needed. These stories make me feel like writing and storytelling are important, which is something I occasionally need to be reminded of.
Paley's writing is super-sharp and her characters are precise and real. It's jarring to discover that what she's really writing about, in this very exact, brutally clear way, is utter chaos and human messiness. Within the first five pages, I'd already put the book down twice--the second time, which I added as a GoodReads quote, in the story "Debts," with the sentence "There is a long time in me between knowing and telling," and the first time, in "Wants," because of this:
"He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber's snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. What I mean is, I sat down on the library steps and he went away."
My God, that's so simple but visceral! There are plenty of other moments like this throughout the collection, but it wasn't just the moments and turns of phrase that made it special; there's a coherent world view here that's unshakable and just heartbreaking and odd all at once. Read it, read it, read it. Seriously, read it. (less)
I had intended to read this before leaving Kenyon (it was on my List Of Things To Do Before Leaving Ohio, after all, and I was pretty serious about cr...moreI had intended to read this before leaving Kenyon (it was on my List Of Things To Do Before Leaving Ohio, after all, and I was pretty serious about crossing things off that list), but I didn't get a chance to pick it up until this morning. So I'm reading it as I'm returning to my own alma mater; and after several consecutive nights of walking the campus and visiting favorite places, sites of trauma, etc.; and almost exactly a year to the day that Jason and I drove back for alumni weekend and I realized that I could stand to be here without dropping to the ground and covering my head with my hands.
I'll probably write more when I've finished reading this, but for now I'll mention that P.F. Kluge was one of the first faculty members I met when I started working at Kenyon in September 2006. During our first interaction, he introduced me to his typewriter. He's the only member of the Kenyon community ever to send me an email that began with the greeting "yo, melanie." At last year's Kenyon Review Writers' Harvest, I read a weird little story after he read one of his not-weird essays, and it was not at all stressful for me to take the stage following the campus celebrity and writer-in-residence, she said sarcastically. (less)