Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dare to Dream

This is not a bad idea, though risky.

This is where I see myself someday: running a lending library/store of my own. So here's the idea: after a lifetime of book collecting (currently my collection is upwards of 4,000 books, so by 60 I ought to be sitting on a pretty impressive pile), I will open my library to the locals of my beloved neighborhood, wherever that ends up being. It would probably be somewhere north or south of the Loop (assuming I stay in Chicago)-- somewhere without a good neighborhood library. I shall charge a small annual fee to be a member and then students, scholars, and anyone else of the mind may take a book and read and study at their leisure. No library late fees, no 2 week restrictions, no snotty librarians, no train ride needed. Admittedly, my library would be catered to my interests, which, you may guess, fall toward poetry and literature in translation, especially Latin American and Russian, as well as the Northern Irish lit. Perhaps my library would also offer comfy chairs and free tea for the dedicated members who wish to saddle up for a long afternoon of research. I might even include a smoking section. Of course, monthly events (readings, workshops, tutoring sessions) might draw more asses to the seats, so there's another possibility. It's all in embryo at the moment, but I think teaching and running all over town busting ass at the various gigs will one day grow old. If I can save the dough, and continue collecting books at my normal rate, I might try and launch this crazy idea. How else will I ever retire?

Cuba to Lose Smokes, Gain Chiles?

A pretty hilarious article if only for the fact that Americans think Cuban food must resemble what is eaten in New Mexico.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Read Thomas Bernhard

This might be considered handy for anyone interested in Thomas Bernhard, which is to say, anyone interested in top notch literature. Bernhard is in the running for my favorite writer ever, anywhere, any era. Okay, Faulkner, Cabrera Infante, Arenas, and Bulgakov are never going to be unseated, but after reading only The Loser, Yes, and Wittgenstein's Nephew I am convinced that Bernhard is the real fucking deal. His admittedly bleak subjects (there’s a suicide in many of his novels), prolonged rants (rarely, if ever is there a paragraph break), and non-linear “plots” constitute more than a unique voice, though his certainly was unique. His books transcend post-modern showing-off and other obvious trickery. His work— singular, intense, unrelenting—manages to subvert literary tradition while adhering to it closer than many of his peers. The work is dense and no, I’m not kidding, there really are no paragraph breaks. Still, the work moves quickly and the reader (or should I say, this reader) never feels overwhelmed by the breathless style. To the contrary: this reader has been energized by it. Seriously, after reading Yes I felt like I had been given a shot of B12 vitamins.

Anyone lucky/smart/savvy enough to have read Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya—who I have raved about in the past—will see Bernhard as a clear influence. Hell, Castellanos Moya name-checked Bernhard in the title of one of his novels. If one is going to borrow from anyone, Bernhard might just be the best, and most difficult, to borrow from. Consider The Loser. The plot is essentially revealed in the opening pages. Three students attended a music conservatory, one of them being Glenn Gould the famous pianist. Another of the three kills himself for various reasons largely tied to those long past school days. The third narrates the novel. And yeah, things do happen outside of this incredibly lame description, but not much. Somehow this spins into around a hundred pages. Never does the book feel like it is dragging or reaching into places where it does not belong. Bernhard’s skill allowed him to create a circular plot with constant shifts and moves that make the reader feel as though they have gone everywhere and nowhere. The book is simple and complex all at once. A goddamn miracle.

Like most great art, the reviewer (me) criminally fails in describing the work, and here I make no exception. Fuck what I say, go see for yourself. Now that Vintage is putting out a lot of Bernhard books, seeing for yourself is easier than ever.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Gato in the Bag

Rant, Bitch, Hate

There is no reason for me to write this post. I will not be seeing Eat, Pray, Love anytime soon, but I cannot deny a small desire to watch the thing akin to the urge one often has to place the tongue on a bad tooth. I do not care for Julia Roberts, nor do I wish to see the story of a moneyed woman take a year off (which, according to Stuff White People Like, is a very white person’s thing to do—this post almost seems written for Eat, Pray, Love) to find some spiritual mojo via “The Other.” Essentially the prospect of this film (based on, I hear, a true story, ho-hum) intrigues and offends me for the same reason that I reject a lot of anthropology: it’s just so fucking ugly. Americans are the ultimate insulated, comfortable culture. Only in our society could we spawn such ennui, the sort of quasi-existential crises that beset well-to-do white women. Who am I? Where is my center? Why am I so adrift and unsatisfied? Sure, all good questions, but only those with means have the time or energy to ask them, much less search for answers. The others are too busy trying to pay bills and get food on the table.

In a sense, this is the sort of feminism that the 60s crop championed, the kind that deals with the problems of the average middle to upper class white women and ignores the plight of the poor. For that I am annoyed, especially when I see the picture of Julia Roberts with a fucking spoon in her mouth, lazily eating gelato in Italy. The praying and loving might be a minor draw, but I would guess the food—and the story’s philosophy of ignoring Atkins and indulging in carbs—is what gets asses in the seats. Women, for years told to eschew pasta in favor of salads, have a reason to indulge again. (Thank you, Hollywood!) Nothing wrong here, but I wish the message (or, if you will, permission) came form a source more interesting than a Julia Roberts vehicle.

Anyway, can there be a better symbol for the film than the before mentioned photo? Julia looks well dressed. (Money.) She is sitting in an exotic European setting. (The Other = enlightened.) And she has a spoon in her mouth, much like the one her character might have been born with. The message of salvation through consumption is somewhat sickening, though who could imagine a better philosophy for Americans?

Anyway, sorry to vent. Go back to doing what you do.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Dear Mr. Shivani: Chill, Homie

Read this from the Huffington Post. Of course, critics are free to do as they please and trash some talented writers (Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri could've been spared), much the way Diane Keaton in Woody Allen's Manhattan created the "academy of the overrated." As Allen's character pointed out, it is exhilarating to trash people in this way, and, likewise, it is exhilarating to read some really good trash talking, especially when the trashed are literary types (those uppity fucks).

And yeah, fuck Amy Tan and Jorie Graham-- I really don't care about their work. But still... this seems a bit much. Okay, I get it-- bad writing is "characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance." Maybe we can agree there, but still, laying into Billy Collins is like using a blowtorch to light a cigar. The problem with the list is that no one really takes the likes of Collins or Tan too seriously. Sure, they both sell books, but the literati of the day are not exactly clamoring to hoist either of them up to the level of Proust. And Vollmann? He has his fans, to be sure, and I can't say much, having not read a lot of his work, but I know enough about him to know that whatever it is he is up to is a lot more interesting than the schmaltz of Michael Cunningham.

Oh well, my opinions are my own, right? Right. Thanks to Mr. Shivani for entering the conversation. I like when people bash the MFA system as it is definitely rife with problems and, yes, does push trends and produce a cadre of similar, dull writing. It also, sometimes, produces some pretty good stuff. That's the thing: most writing is bad. The more people writing, the more shit we'll encounter. So sure, mathematically MFA programs are going to launch a lot of crap writers and crap writing. But I dare say that this has always been the case. God knows there was lousy writing-- the kind that was either pretentious and dull or schmaltzty and irritating or maybe even inept and sloppy, certainly egoistic and pompous-- long before there was a post-grad major promoting it. Anyway, MFA writing is as easy a target as Billy Collins.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

More of My Cult

A bit back I wrote about some of my favorite movies. Wasn't that something? Looking back, it seems I left out a few, so here's a new installment. More might follow. Ya-hoo?


Mike Leigh, baby! I've tried to watch some of his other movies—most notably Life is Sweet—but never really cared as much about them as I have this dark little oddity. In 1993 this movie played at the 3 Penny, a shitty little theater that is no more. I had the experience of seeing this film there and then, and, as I walked out the nasty, sticky, humid theater, I found that I had no voice. People were talking about the film ("Brilliant," "Too dark," "Too angry," "What the fuck was that?"); some turned to me for my thoughts. I had nothing to say. What could I possible say about the movie? Yes, it was (is) dark and Johnny, the protagonist, boarders on being irredeemable, but it is not, as has been said, nihilistic. When Johnny mentions god to Brian, the overnight security guard with whom he engages in a, um, spirited discussion, Brian accuses him of not believing in god. Johnny responds: "Of course I believe in god." Sure, he goes on to describe god as a nasty bastard who despises his creation, but the very belief in something outside ourselves negates any criticism of nihilism. So there.

Go back and watch the film, but before you do so, read this interview: It makes it seem all the more amazing. There is no doubt in my mind that David Thewlis 's performance as Johnny is the finest acting I'll ever see in a movie. It just can't be topped.

Heavenly Creatures

Another one that silenced me. I was already familiar with the work of Peter Jackson when this hit the big screens. As a result, I expected something like Bad Taste or Dead Alive—both great films if you have the stomach for them (Bad Taste has a scene that makes me turn away)—but this was nothing like those. Though there are no zombies or aliens, and the blood is at a minimum, the movie is pure Peter Jackson pre Lord of the Rings. I remember one of my friends saying that this movie was the equivalent of having a bone ground into your skull. I never knew how to take that, but it seems apt. While far from lurchingly paced, the film movies at its own speed, paying off in ways that continue to surprise me. That bone is forced into your head in a relentless manner that leads you to an inevitable, painful conclusion. That's filmmaking! Seriously, everything about the film, even the computer effects, feels organic to me. I don't get the impression that anymore exists. I've never watched this DVD, though if I did I would not want to see any special features. Often the extras ruin movies for me. I still think of movies as magic, and I don't always want the secrets revealed. Any cut scene, any "this is how we did that," any interview with the cast, any comparing and contrasting of the story with the truth would kill it.

The Third Man

The link from the first on this list and the second was the fact that both films left me speechless. The link here is clear if you've seen Heavenly Creatures, as the characters go to see The Third Man and then see Orson Welles following them home. From the moment I first saw this to the last time I watched it I have been convinced that it is better than most else. It has been suggested that the whole thing works as a metaphor for American vs. European attitudes, especially post WWII, which I am willing to accept. Most folks will direct you to Welles's famous "cuckoo clock" speech, but for me the whole thing centers on Joseph Cotton, a hack writer of Western novels, trying to field a barrage of questions about modernist literature from Austrian intellectuals. It shows him in over his head and somehow managing to swim. That's a lot of the movie right there.

What else? The look of the thing is incredible. The story, the characters, the acting, all top notch. Even the music is perfect. It is funny, dramatic, has a love story, crime, murder... you know all reasons why we watch movies.

Time Bandits

For a long, long time, this was my "favorite movie" though that was replaced by Big Trouble in Little China during a rather unproductive summer in front of HBO. I wanted to be Kevin, simple as that. I wanted to travel through time and get in adventures, only I might have been more apt to steal then Kevin was, and I didn’t want my parents to end up the way his did, although to this day it remains my favorite film ending—up there with Chinatown. Watching this recently, I was amused by The Supreme Being's answer to the question about why we need evil in the world. "I think it has something to do with free will." Thank you, Mr. Gilliam.