Sunday, February 25, 2007

What I’ve Been Watching

Since tonight is the Oscars night, it seems appropriate to talk about movies. Except I haven’t seen many nominated films, despite all my recent movie watching. So, no Oscar predictions here.

However, I did manage to finally see Little Miss Sunshine, just the other day. It was nice. But not great. Maybe I’ve heard too much about it. Yes, it was funny and quirky and fairly intelligent, and some of the writing and acting was great. But it was also familiar. The same quirky family we’ve seen so many times. The same Toni Collette in the same odd/hassled mother role. The same familiar trajectory – the outrageous/annoying characters are allowed to develop and show us their humanity. Movie Dictator loved this movie, actually. My sense is that despite his international movie-geek expertise, he hasn’t seen as many American “indie” films on the subject of dysfunctional family as I have.

Speaking of which, what is an indie film these days? (We had a discussion about it.) Movie Dictator pointed out that to produce a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, with actors of Toni Collette/Greg Kinnear/Alan Arkin caliber, they had to have a significant budget. Granted, not the kind of budget that, say, Babel had, but still, significant. My understanding – or rather a guess – is that anything not produced by one of the major studios is considered indie. This would include total dark horses that come to light at Sundance, and the bigger players like Little Miss Sunshine. Am I wrong? I might be.

Actually, the best and most surprising thing about Little Miss Sunshine was the music. Most of it was by DeVotchka, one of my favorite bands. Their music is gorgeous, a mix of instruments and influences, Gypsy, East European, Italian, Mariachi. Find it. Listen to it. Like the stupid Natalie Portman character says in Garden Sate, “It will change your life.”

Okay, enough of Little Miss Sunshine.

The movie that I recently watched and really liked was The Lives of Others – a German movie, set in East Germany before the fall of Berlin Wall. (Something in me seems to respond to the communist angst. The spying! The repressions! The plight of artists in a totalitarian state!) Seriously, though, the movie is smart and subtle, and there’s something to be said for subtle. What I liked the best is reading the face of one of the main characters (as he’s spying/listening on others). Nothing is explained, and yet one can see what he’s going through.

And while we’re at it: why does everything has to be so over-explained in American movies today? It didn’t use to be that way. Here’s an example. A few months ago, Movie Dictator introduced me to Black Christmas. The original version. Black Christmas is a horror movie about sorority girls who start getting crank calls and end up getting killed one at a time. (And no, in case you’re wondering, in the original 1974 version the sorority girls are not slutty. Well, except for one.) The movie’s not exactly a masterpiece, and it’s got some degree of predictability in it (i.e. one girl will survive and you know pretty much from the beginning which one it will be). What makes it interesting, though, is that crank calls are never explained. They’re odd crank calls, There’s a story behind them, and you can glimpse some parts of it, but the story is not explained and not revealed completely. By the time you get to the end of it, you’re still not sure who the killer is.

Now fast forward to 2006. Black Christmas is remade. The sorority girls are finally slutty. (Hooray!) The killer is revealed right away, even before the killings begin. And the back story of the killer, his connection to the sorority house, his family, his horribly abusive mother (made to look like a fairytale witch – just so we don’t miss the point that she’s horrible and abusive) – all of it is given to us immediately, in a heap of ridiculous flashbacks and lengthy explanations by some secondary characters. The dialogue is trite and clunky and obvious. More importantly, the movie is completely stripped of mystery.

Moving back to the good, quality movies and the Oscars: The ones I’m rooting for this year are Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men. The former one is a beautiful and scary fairytale -- the kind you can’t take your eyes off. It’s set in Franco’s Spain. The latter one is dark, apocalyptic, and set in England. Both are strange and haunting.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What I'm Reading

With all the movies and travel and job angst, sometimes it’s easy to forget that I’m a reader first. So what have I been reading lately?

Mostly magazines at this point. But I’m happy to report that I’m almost caught up on the New Yorkers. A new issue of N+1 has arrived. And so has the new issue of Poets and Writers.

There are times when I wonder whether I should renew Poets and Writers for another year. Then I get a new issue and find something really useful or even inspirational. In the current issue, for example, there’s a great article by Walter Mosley, “Writing Every Day: The First-Time Novelist's New Year Plan,” which is an excerpt from his upcoming book on writing. And yes, he talks about writing every day (nothing new here, and yet a good reminder given how scattered I’ve been about writing lately), why it’s important not to miss more than one day, and how much work is done subconsciously.

I’ve assembled a file of P&W articles—interviews with the authors I like, practical advice about MFA programs, magazines, and getting published in general, essays on craft—all of which I use a lot when I teach. Walter Mosley’s is definitely joining the file (in fact, I used it yesterday in my Grub Street class). In addition to the “pep talk” about writing every day, it also talks about character development ( “The story you tell, the characters you present, will all have dark sides to them. If you want to write believable fiction, you will have to cross over the line of your self-restraint”) and about using autobiographical material (“[W]ait until the book is finished before making a judgment on its content. By the time you have rewritten the text twenty times the characters may have developed lives of their own, completely separate from the people you based them on in the beginning”).

I’m slowly making my way through the issue 5 of N+1. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a big fan of N+1 from the beginning. One of its founding editors is my dear friend/compatriot/fellow Syracuse classmate, Keith Gessen.) I’m reading slowly because the articles are complex and challenging and not that easy to get through, say, at 7 in the morning when you’re barely awake. They require your undivided attention. Which is a good thing. For me, the highlights so far are the essay on pornography and a wonderful short story by Rebecca Curtis. I would’ve included links, but I couldn’t find the usual annotated table of contents. (Hint: Dear editors? Keith? Are you reading this? Will you update the website?)

And just in case you’re thinking that I’ve sworn off books in favor of magazines, I was reading a book this morning – The Voice Actor's Guide to Home Recording. No, I’m not contemplating a new career. But Movie Dictator is a voiceover artist, and we’re currently trying to figure out how to assemble a recording studio for him. So if you know any sound engineers, send them our way!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Back from Pittsburgh

It’s been a week from hell.

Exactly a week ago, on Sunday, Movie Dictator and myself got into our car and went off to Connecticut. I had an interview there the following day. The trip took only 1.5 hours and we spent the rest of the day exploring the towns in this semi-rural area, known as “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut. We checked out Manchester, which seemed eerily deserted. We drove to Glastonbury, which looked expensive and lacking any sort of town center. We drove to Hartford, which looked kind of nice in the lights of the setting sun. Some old building and sculptures (men on horses). Finally we made our way into West Hartford, which seemed nice enough.

The next day, I had my interview. It started at 9 am went on until 9:30 pm, which was when the dinner ended. It was a lot of fun! All the faculty and students were lovely, enthusiastic, kind, funny. It just seemed like a great place to be. I think I did well, but there’s just no way to know for sure. All I can do right now, is keep my fingers crossed and wait.

The moment the dinner was over, though, my cell phone rang. It was my father calling to tell me that my grandfather passed away. My grandfather had been at a hospital for the past 3 weeks. He was 89 years old and his heart had been failing. On some days he was given 50% of survival, on other days, 5-10%. We didn’t know what to think. On Monday he got worse, and by the end of the day, he was gone.

I considered driving to Pittsburgh directly from Connecticut, but my father talked me out of it – Pittsburgh was in the midst of a serious snowstorm. Instead, Movie Dictator and I went downstairs and got drunk. I was feelings exhausted and miserable.

What can I tell you about my grandfather? He was great. He was funny. He was fond of practical jokes. He was about to turn 90 this summer, though in reality he was only 88. He had added a year to his age to get into a Naval Academy. He had one son and two daughters; 6 grandchildren, and a bunch of great-grandchildren. He’d had 4 wives, though most of his life he spent with our grandmother. They met at a hospital: he was critically wounded, she was his nurse. She nursed him to health. Reader, they married each other. Their first daughter was born in 1943, while Leningrad was under siege. My grandfather defended Leningrad. He was a captain of a minesweeper. In 1945, he was sent to Alaska, where he became a captain of an American battle ship. He fought against Japan. Then he came back. In 1953 during the last round of Stalin’s purges he was forced into an early retirement. It could have been worse. My other grandfather (my dad’s side) didn’t survive 1953 at all.

Next morning, we went back to Boston. On the way there, we drove through the town of Willimantic, about 8 miles away from the university. I instantly fell in love with it. It seemed both rundown and up-and-coming. It had a character and charm. Also, a food coop, yoga studio, and a Polish breakfast place. Still, we agreed not to count the unhatched chickens or – to use a Russian expression -- not to split the skin of the unkilled bear.

Back in Boston it was time to run errands, pay bills, buy airplane tickets, and pack. For various logistical reasons we decided that I would go to Pittsburgh alone. The following morning I got up at 3:30 am and headed for the airport. The flight was several hours late—they had to de-ice the plane several times and then wait for a better weather—but it eventually took off. I was lucky. It was the last plane to Pittsburgh that day, all the other ones were canceled.

At the airport in Pittsburgh, I was supposed to wait for my brother-in-law and drive home with him. Unfortunately, his connecting flight from Chicago got canceled, and so I had to get a cab again.

Pittsburgh was cold and sunny and covered in snow. A real winter wonderland, with big white snowdrifts, snowed-in roads, and the tree branches silvery with ice. (And Movie Dictator was missing it all.)

My sister arrived the morning before. My brother-in-law that afternoon. The funeral was the next day.

We spent much of the week talking about my grandfather, telling stories, looking at his old pictures. He used to be stunningly handsome. In his last days, mostly unconscious, he thought he was a captain again. He was on his ship, tough and powerful, scolding the slackers, giving out commands.

The funeral was on Thursday. The ceremony -- fairly quick: a couple of speeches by the relatives (me included), a speech by the rabbi (why can they never remember the name of the deceased, the only name that is important?). Fortunately, the rabbi kept the prayers to the minimum. We drove to the cemetery. It was another beautiful and freezing day. We were given paper packets of earth. A few more words of Kaddish, and then it was all over.

The rest of the week was spent on clearing my grandfather’s apartment (not a trivial thing, since my mother wanted to keep everything and my father to throw everything out), visiting family and friends, entertaining visitors. Every day we were up until 1 or 2 in the morning, I was -- and still am -- exhausted. But it was also good, the way our family came together. It made me realize a bunch of things about my relationship with them – but that’s a subject for a whole other posting.

And now is the best part: I’m home, with the Movie Dictator, and I can finally relax, catch up on e-mail, and sleep.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Catching Up on the New Yorkers

It’s that time again. A stack of unread issues of the New Yorker has formed on my nightstand – about 2 months’ worth of them—and lately I’ve been trying to catch up, issue by issue, making a slow but steady progress. Along the way, I figured this was a good place to mention some articles that have made an impression on me.

For example…

"My Father’s Suticase", the 2006 Nobel Lecture by Orhan Pamuk (12/25-01/01 issue). A lovely meditation on writing and writing life. I liked his way of describing of what it’s like to be a writer:

“A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man—or this woman—may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at black wall. He may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete—after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.”

I like his idea of the “inward gaze.” It’s so essential, and yet so hard to accomplish, especially on the days when everything is hectic, and when writing is supposed to somehow fit in between errands, grading, grocery shopping, and doctors’ appointments.

In comparing himself to his father (who wrote much of his life but wasn’t published), Pamuk describes two types of writers. He describes himself as someone who’s at odds with the world, lonely and alienated, and his describes his father as the opposite of that:

“In fact, I was angry at my father because he had not led a life like mine—because he had never quarrelled with his life, and had spent it happily laughing with his friends and his loved ones. But part of me also knew that I was not so much “angry” as “jealous,” that the second word was more accurate, and this, too, made me uneasy. I’d ask myself in a scornful, angry voice: What is happiness? Is happiness believing that you live a deep life in your lonely room? Or is happiness leading a comfortable life in society, believing in the same things as everyone else, or, at least, acting as if you did? Is it happiness or unhappiness to go through life writing in secret, while seeming to be in harmony with all that surrounds you?”

I wonder if all writers belong to one of these two camps. I like the idea of being a writer who lives in harmony with his/her world/surrounding. But god forbid, I wouldn’t want to be a complacent writer. So some degree of anger is essential, isn’t it?

Pamuk also makes an important—and to me, unexpected--point. Growing up in Istanbul, he felt he was living in the provinces, far away from the cultural centers where the real art happened. Not only the country didn’t seem very encouraging towards its artists and writers, it also lacked, according to Pamuk, the excitement and richness of “the centers.” (This is surprising to me, because I never thought of Turky as provincial. To me, it was a part of Europe. Then again, how many Turkish writers do I know?)

This idea of provincialism is continued in "Die Weltliteratur” by Milan Kundera (the New Yorker, January 8th), unfortunately not available online.

He defines “provincialism” as “the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.” What’s large context, you ask. Kundera exaplains that “[t]here are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context).” He says that in most anthologies, “world literature is always presented as juxtaposition of national literatures! Literatures in the plural!” “And yet,” he points out, “Rabelais was never better understood than by a Russian, Bakhtin; Dostoyevsky than by a Frenchman, Gide; Ibsen than by an Irishman, Shaw; Joyce than by an Austrian, Broch.”

This made me want to look at the authors less known and more marginalized than Doestoevsky and see whom they influenced (across the national borders) and how. It made me wonder how often the idea of nationality is used as a crutch, how often the works of literature become linked to information, i.e., read this book by a Russian writer and learn more about Russia. I think of all the panels at AWP that use region/ethnicity as their organizing principle. Chinese Women Writers. New Russian Literary Diaspora (in which I participated). It’s marketing. I don’t think it’s wrong, but I also don’t think this should be the only focus. Yes, it’s great to read a book and learn something about the country and the people among which it’s set. But as far as literature is concerned, it should be a secondary benefit. First and foremost, it’s art, and as such, it should be able to transcend national boundaries. Anyway… Kundera says it much better than I.

The final article I wanted to mention is also about writing. "The Art of Extinction" is about Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer, who may be seen as one of those marginalized writers Kundera talks about. I’ve read only one of his novels so far, Yes, and it was glorious—dense, dark, emotionally sweeping. (He uses very few paragraph breaks.)

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the article:

"Bernhard had a well-deserved reputation as the country’s most provocative postwar writer: he spent his career alternately mocking and mourning Austria’s Nazi legacy, which, with typical bluntness, he once represented as a pile of manure on the stage. At first, he declined to participate in the commemoration, saying with caustic humor that a more appropriate gesture would be for all the shops once owned by Jews to display sign reading “Judenfrei.” But the author of play like “The German Lunch Table,” in which family members gathered for a meal discovered Nazis in their soup, could not resist such a rich opportunity to needle Austria’s political and cultural √©lite."

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Searching for Snow

It’s cold in Boston. Very cold. But still no snow. Apart from occasional flurries, there’s been nothing this year worth speaking of yet. The rest of the country, sure. But in Boston nothing.

Movie Dictator desperately wants snow. He’s South African, he doesn’t know any better. He becomes mesmerized at the sight snowflakes. We even had one little snowball fight! But it’s not enough. What he wants is a real storm, with a state of emergency and excessive snow shoveling. I keep telling him it’s not all fun and games, but he remains unperturbed.

So a couple of weeks ago, we got in the car and went in search of snow. More specifically, we went to Vermont. Even more specifically, to Killington. Now, you need to understand, we’re not exactly skier types. Not at all, actually. We felt totally out of plays in the Killington Village (or whatever it’s called), among all the sporty-looking people dressed in their bright skiing gear. But we did see some cars covered in snow, and this filled us with hope.

We drove a little further—by then it got dark—up a hill that looked increasingly deserted. And then, suddenly, we were at the bottom of a mountain. And all around us was…snow. Okay, it wasn’t real snow. But it felt real. And we saw how it was made—right there, in front of us.

Below is the evidence. The white round blobs are the snowflakes. Movie Dictator wouldn’t let me post a better picture of him (the dictator that he is), but you get the idea. Also, as a bonus, there’s a picture of me with bunny ears on New Year’s Eve.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Movies and the Pursuit of Communism

Two movies on the subject of communism were consumed this weekend. (You’d think I was from Russia or something.)

The first one was Underground by Emir Kusturica. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it until I realized he also directed Arizona Dream(the one with Johnny Depp and Lili Taylor). Without giving away too much, I can say that the movie is set in former Yugoslavia. It starts straightforwardly enough, though not without some vaudeville-like flourishes: Yugoslavia under German occupation, two likable friends (communists or thieves or both), a girl they are both after who seems to prefer a German… All of this accompanied by the scenes of drunken revelry and Balkan music. Then the movie jumps ahead. The war is either over or not. Some of the main characters are either dead or alive or played by actors in a movie that’s being filmed as a part of the plot. It’s a glorious mess that ultimately begins to make sense. Suddenly what we have is a perfect allegory of what communism (or socialism rather) was: a bunch of people living in the dark, blindly believing in the ideals that didn’t apply anymore -- a farce created by a group of corrupt puppeteers. The movie might be a bit too long, but its third part, in which Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore and what’s left of it is, once again, in a state of war, feels especially poignant.

Which is more than I can say for the second movie, 1900 (aka Novecento). On the one hand, it’s Bertolucci. On the other hand, it’s 5+ hours long. And yes, in the uncut version you get to see naked Depardiu and De Niro, in the same scene and with their genitals visible. But is it worth it? This story takes place in Italy and starts long before the WWII. De Niro plays a landowner's son (at least his grown-up version, and trust me it takes a while to get to that point); Depardiue plays a peasant’s son. From their early days, the two share an uncertain friendship, made even more so by the good old class antagonism. De Niro’s character is interesting. He means well, but he’s indecisive and corrupted by his family wealth. He wants to please too many people at once. Depardiue’s character is supposed to be likable, but he’s way too smug for my taste. The third significant figure is played for Donald Southerland—and I’m sorry to say that even Southerland’s charm (see Kelly’s Heroes or The Eagle Has Landed) can’t help this evil character.

Still, despite the lengthiness, I basically enjoyed the movie. Until we got to the ending. I’m not sure what Bertolucci was up to here, but the scene of incoherent peasants testifying in a makeshift court does little to endear one to the idea of socialism in action. And maybe that’s how it should be.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Books: Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender

I like odd stories. Surreal, magical, experimental. I like them because they are unpredictable and surprising. Because my own writing is not like that. Most of all, I like them because they can talk of familiar things (relationships, feelings, conflicts) with unfamiliar precision.

Aimee Bender’s books seem to belong to the camp of magic realism. Willful Creatures is her third one, and like her first collection, it has its requisite magic: a woman discovers a store that sells words; a woman finds seven potatoes in a cast-iron pot, and no matter what she does, she can’t get rid of them; a boy has fingers shaped like keys; a pumpkinhead couple gives birth to an ironhead child. These are lovely stories, emotional, poignant, full of melancholy.

But the stories that affected me the most have no magic at all. They are strange, though. They have flawed characters. In one (“Off”), a lonely rich girl at a party decides she must kiss three men (a redhead, a blonde, and a brunette); in another (“Debbieland”) a group of vicious school girls is terrorizing an unpopular girl. This latter story is at first narrated by a collective “we,” but later a single (if unidentified) narrator emerges. (It shouldn’t work, but it does.) These narrators have oddly appealing confidence to them. Their worldview is whole. But underneath it all lurks doubt. Like everyone else, they’re vulnerable, mortal.

The language, too, is full of unexpected turns. Normally, Aimee Bender’s prose is not flowery. It’s deceptively simple, and this book is no exception. And yet, the language here felt thrilling. In “Death Watch” the sex with a dying man is “like castles; it has moats and turrets.” In “Off,” the narrator says, “[W]ine is making my bones loose and it’s giving my hair a red sheen, and my breasts are blooming and my eyes feel sultry and wise and the dress is water.“

Finally, I’d like to say that I’ve seen Aimee Bender read from her work a few times, and she’s a great reader, generous and down to earth. After her reading at Newtonville Books, for example, she made a point of talking to people, actually initiating conversations, asking what they did and whether they also wrote. So the next time she’s appearing at your local bookstore, by all means go.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Why I Love Arlington Public Library

But first a couple of side notes:

1. I’m enjoying blogging so far. What I’m learning, though, is that it’s no fun when you don’t get any responses. If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there… does it really fall? I’ve always been the kind of person who never left comments. But I’m reformed now. Promise!

2. Some news on the job front. Did another phone interview yesterday (with a college in San Francisco area), and I think it actually went okay. Also got a note from a university in Connecticut trying to schedule an on-campus interview. That was unexpected, as there were no preliminary interviews (on the phone or in person). Don’t have any details yet, but I’m feeling excited and nervous.

Now back to the previously scheduled topic: the library.

Ideally, I am fine working at home. However, having two writers in the same smallish apartment can get claustrophobic. So I’ve been writing in various cafes in the area – not a perfect solution, but doable with the help of earplugs.

Then I discovered Arlington Public Library. It’s quiet! That’s probably the best things about it. Occasionally, you get some teenagers jabbering on the phone, or a couple of seniors talking history books and how Stalin was an okay guy and how we should nuke all of the Middle East. But those are exceptions. For the most part, everyone is courteous and focused on his or her work. There are plenty of tiny cubicle-desks (each comes with a shelf and a lamp), which make for some much needed privacy. Plenty of electric outlets (each desk is equipped with them). Free wireless on the third floor. Also you don’t have to keep spending money on food. I usually bring along my lunch and later eat in my car (no food in the library!). A little uncomfortable, but I get to listen to the NPR while I eat. Parking can be challenging, but after 5-10 minutes of waiting a space usually frees up.

Still, there are days when it’s cold and windy outside, and all you want is to sit on a comfy couch with your computer in your lap, tinkering with your writing while sipping hot tea and snacking on egg-and-cheese sandwiches. Which is why I’m not at the library today.