James Tata

An informal log of recent enthusiasms.

"Remarks aren't literature."--Gertrude Stein

"...criticism in and of itself, even when it is most rigorous and inspired, is unable to entirely account for the phenomenon of creation..."--Mario Vargas Llosa

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Monday, June 11, 2007
 
Lucinda Williams at the Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR, June 10, 2007

I like Lucinda a lot but had never seen her live before, only listened to her records (see my review of a couple of them here). This show was in a standing room only venue, and though my feet hurt this morning, I loved the show. She rocks way harder than her former reputation as an alt-country star would have you believe. She said, "I'd have a keyboardist and backup singers, but the truth is I can't afford them. But if you can't do it with just a guitar, a bass, and drums, then why bother?" As I said in the review I linked to above, her Stones influence is at least as strong as any of her country influences. She focused on songs from her last three albums, and her latest, West, is particularly strong. These newer songs are simpler than the songs she made her reputation with, those from Car Wheels and earlier; Christgau, in his review of West in Rolling Stone, thinks these songs aren't as good. I'd say they are different--less self-consciously poetic, but more direct, and in their way, just as poetic. I like all her songs. Me, like everyone else in the room, though, was disappointed that she didn't do the title song from that album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." (I admit to having left three songs into the encore, so maybe she did it last and I missed it. Like I said, my feet were hurting.)

For me the highlight of the show was her performance of "Unsuffer Me," from the new album. She said that it was not about unrequited love, her usual subject (about which she made several jokes), but about spiritual longing. (To which I might say...what's the difference??) Great lyrics, and a powerful performance. I'd say that if you are planning on going to see her expecting a middle-of-the-road performance of sad love/co-dependency songs, you'll find, instead, a gritty, raucously guitar-hero-ish performance of sad love/co-dependency songs. And you'll like it.

I don't have tickets to any future shows and don't plan on going to any more for a long time, so this was a good way for my year or two streak of concert-going to end. It was a good run.

Postscript: Here's an interesting article (from 2004, I believe) about Lucinda and her father, poet Miller Williams. If you're interested in musicians or writers, read the whole thing, but what follows is a nice excerpt.
Throughout her career, Williams has always had her father’s ear as a sounding board for her latest works-in-progress, offering critique and suggestions. "He’s my toughest critic besides myself," she has said, adding that "he’s always been sort of my mentor, you know. It’s like a teacher/student type of a thing." When she consulted him on her latest album, World Without Tears, her father responded without a single change, saying her new lyrics were the closest she had come to poetry, to which she replied, "Wow, does that mean I've graduated?'"


Sunday, June 10, 2007
 
It was reading the so-called "Nachman" stories, uncollected, some of them published in the New Yorker, that I came to be a fan of Leonard Michaels, whom I would consider a real writers' writer. Mona Simpson on Michaels' stories:
Michaels will be remembered for his stories --"Manikin," "Murderers," "City Boy," "Going Places" -- along with "A Girl With a Monkey," "Honeymoon," "Tell Me Everything" -- and the seven astonishing Nachman stories, which transpire without sex as they chronicle the life of a gifted Santa Monica mathematician who keeps house alone. These stories consider moral problems freshly. All the ornament seems burned off, purified; the narratives distilled and gorgeously plain, as only a great stylist’s can become. Less crackling than the earlier work, they’re smoother in the mouth, stark in form. Michaels was writing more Nachman stories when he died. If finished and published together, they might have made a novel. As it is, they’re seven irregular beauties, to be read again and again.

Also in the review:
"My lifetime production of fiction," he once said, "is equal to what some writers do in six months, or Joyce Carol Oates does in six minutes." Then again, to be remembered for "a handful of writings" as Lorrie Moore has said, "is really all any writer, even a great one, can hope for." Michaels left a handful and a half.

When you put your heart into your fiction, I would think, it would be hard to be prolific, especially when the world rewards your heart-as-fiction with indifference, or worse. Maybe Michaels--if he had any control over his productivity, which is doubtful--was smart to only show a small bit of what he undoubtedly wrote.

Friday, June 08, 2007
 
Something that ought to give anyone pause:
...it is no accident that our European allies —for whom the twentieth century was a traumatic catastrophe—are predisposed to accept that cooperation, not combat, is the necessary condition of survival—even at the expense of some formal sovereign autonomy. British military casualties at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 alone exceed all US losses in World Wars I and II combined. The French army lost twice the total number of US Vietnam casualties in the course of just six weeks' fighting in 1940. Italy, Poland, Germany, and Russia all lost more soldiers and civilians in World War I—and again in World War II—than the US has lost in all its foreign wars put together (in the Russian case by a factor of ten on both occasions). Such contrasts make quite a difference in how you see the world.

...Here in the US, at the time of writing, the death of more than three thousand American soldiers in Iraq has registered with the public; but the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis hardly at all.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007
 
Joyce Carol Oates reading, Powell's Books branch

I was surprised to see that Joyce Carol Oates was reading at a suburban branch of Powell's; I was even more surprised to find that, given the darkness of her fiction, she's a very engaging and likable speaker with a wonderful sense of humor, befitting her day job as a teacher. She's the kind of intellectual I have a fondness for, someone from a modest background who comes to the intellectual life from love, not from a desire to show off their sophistication. She comes across as someone who has not lost her excitement about the world, as opposed to the kind of intellectual who is blase and too guarded to display a sense of wonder at human capacity. Here are a few notes from the Q and A.

--She said: "Books are an icy cold medium." Unlike the performing arts or even sports (she mentioned boxing, which of course is a great love of hers), where the performer or the athlete can end their career in a moment, a writer has the opportunity to keep improving their work before showing it to the world. She described how raw the emotions of an early draft can be. She puts away her novel manuscripts for 12 to 15 months, apparently to let her emotions "cool off" before returning to work on it.

--She described telling students who write overstuffed short stories that they are actually novelists: "They look at me with a look of anguish, and I look at them with a look of pity." She said that she doesn't know any writer who would want their children to be writers, yet she and others, as teachers, encourage their students to be writers.

--She described how the poet Theodore Roethke would see and hear the rhythm and the form of a poem before he would see the words. She said, "Isn't that amazing?" and seemed to mean it. This is an example of what I meant above when I said her sense of wonder seems undiluted by so many years in the literary and academic worlds. Certainly she has the teacher's ability to conjure enthusiasm from her students by expressing it herself, but actors sometimes tell great truths, too.

--She said that a novelist starts with memories, feelings, and characters in a very scattered way. She said, "The first six weeks [of writing a novel] are hell. The first six months aren't all that great, either." Neither is finishing. She said that Richard Ford told her he loves working on the middle of a book but hates writing the beginning and the ending.

--When asked which form she prefers writing in, she didn't answer, but instead talked about the differences in genres. Poets aren't interested in character at all (except for those who write dramatic monologues), that they love the music of words above all else; playwrights don't care about plot (I'm not sure I agree), that they invoke subtext from speech in a way that is often missing when read on the page rather than seen in performance (she mentioned the examples of Mamet and Pinter as being baffling on the page, but not on stage--but I don't find either baffling on the page); novelists care about character above all else.

--Oates said that she has to work a novel out in her head before she starts writing. She jogs a lot, and walks fast, and thinks about her fiction while doing so. She also said that writing is very hard for her, and that it has never gotten any easier at all.

If you ever have a chance to see her read or lecture, do it. Seeing her made me wish I could take a class with her, but not everyone gets to go to Princeton, after all.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007
 
I wrote this essay not quite a year ago and am only now getting around to posting it here.



Across the Oceans

New York and New Orleans. The New in each was an insistence, centuries ago, that the world could be remade in the New World, yet the catastrophes in those cities have forced Americans to confront the idea of citizenship in one world, if not for the first time, then with an immediacy not felt since the threat of Cold War annihilation eased. Suicidal terrorism and global warming(1) have both killed American citizens on their own soil and forced large sections of two cities to be evacuated in disaster's aftermath, events unprecedented since the Civil War. The twentieth century allowed Americans to imagine that catastrophe happened in other places, that war was an event our troops had to travel a long way to get to, that coastal disasters only happened in the tropics. But who now doesn’t believe that a dirty bomb in Manhattan or the melting polar ice caps won't someday overshadow 9/11/01 and 8/29/05, making these dates, if not forgotten, commemorative of safer times?

America's power and wealth is so magnified by comparison to the rest of the world that even Europe and Japan, with their public transportation and their weaker economies, no longer seem to belong to the same category as America. In Africa, millions die of AIDS, an entire generation in some countries, and America does nearly nothing, due as much to ignorance of the African reality as to callousness. America's preoccupation with itself would be narcissistic, except that the only admiration it seeks is its own.

Electronic communications and inexpensive air travel continue to bring cultures into closer contact; the petroleum-based economy, dominated by America, that drives communications and air travel is destroying the climatic systems of the planet.(2) Though the American reality would seem to be shaped by outside forces beyond our control, an aggressive Islamic fundamentalism and global warming, they are instead consequences of our very power and wealth. As the symbol of Christendom–reluctant as our generally secular culture is to assume that title, it’s been given to us by Islamist extremists whether we like it or not–and as the patron of Israel, we have enemies, many of whom are educated in Europe, like the 9/11 hijackers, or even born in Europe, like the London Underground bombers and the would-be bombers of flights from Heathrow to New York during the summer of 2006. I remember seeing an interview with an Egyptian journalist on PBS soon after 9/11. I have forgotten his name, but I have not forgotten his prescient observation that the catastrophe that day would lead to the Middle East becoming more like America and to America becoming more like the Middle East. With American troops occupying a Gulf State, with renditions and torture of designated enemies, a military prison operating outside the legal system, and illegal wiretaps, who could argue that America hasn't taken on practices previously associated with the governments of Egypt, Turkey, or Algeria? Much has been written about how and why some immigrants and their children have nurtured such destructive hatreds of their new countries, but for our purposes the only thing that matters is that inexpensive air travel (itself the frequent weapon of choice by terrorists, ironically or not) and electronic communications made these displaced communities possible: refugees not from war so much as from the poverty of the developing world. Contemporary neo-liberal economics is based upon the fluidity of goods, capital, and workers, making national frontiers less meaningful in a world of NAFTA, the WTO, and the EU. As such, the American reality is becoming less specifically "American."

The abandonment of poor African-Americans in New Orleans–both at the time of the flood and for the year and more since–more resembles the actions of a tropical oligarchy than a government by, for, and of the people. The destruction of New Orleans has, in fact, been taken as an opportunity to minimize the presence in that city of African-Americans in favor of middle class whites, largely to reduce the political influence of a Democratic city in the solidly Republican, reactionary "New" South. The cost in human life and in property due to these policies can be tabulated; the cost to American culture due to the vandalism of one of our artistic taproots is incalculable. Many climatologists now believe that global warming is close to the point of no return(3), that even if all carbon-based fuels stopped being burned this instant the global ice caps would continue to melt. Small island nations are already losing acreage to the rising oceans. The hurricane season of 2005 was the most active on record. And yet, the American reality denies by its inaction even the existence of a problem. Turning lights off in unused rooms and driving smaller cars will at best help buy time, but fuel consumption is not a question of personal morality but of public policy, and American public policy hasn’t changed for the better on this issue in over twenty-five years.

The distances across the oceans have ceased to matter. The New World, always a misnomer, no longer exists. America made perhaps its greatest historical gamble beginning in the allegedly quiet 1990's, of remaking the planet in its own image, not as a democracy but as one unified neo-liberal global market. Oil consumption by China and India has sky-rocketed as a result, and the movement of people across borders is increasing in all industrialized countries, causing displacement and cultural anxiety among both immigrants and their hosts. The pursuit of limitless wealth is coming at costs that we–either as American citizens or as humans on a fragile planet–are rapidly becoming unable to bear.


Endnotes:

(1) Elizabeth A. Thomson, "Hurricanes growing fiercer with global warming," Massachusetts Institute of Technology News Office, July 31, 2005, (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2005/hurricanes.html):"Hurricanes have grown significantly more powerful and destructive over the last three decades due in part to global warming, says an MIT professor who warns that this trend could continue... 'My results suggest that future warming may lead to an upward trend in [hurricanes'] destructive potential, and--taking into account an increasing coastal population--a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the 21st century,' reports Kerry Emanuel in a paper appearing in the July 31 online edition of the journal Nature."

(2) John Gray, "The Global Delusion," The New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006: "There can no longer be any reasonable doubt that the global warming the world is experiencing today is a side effect of fossil fuel use. The extraction and consumption of hydrocarbons has been integral to industrialization and remains so; but it is also the chief human cause of planetary overheating. A clear correlation exists between industrialization over the past 150 years and rising greenhouse gases...observation of rapid melting in the Antarctic ice cap and the worsening prognosis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that a major climate shift is underway that could have a severe impact on the way we live...Mounting evidence...suggests a growing possibility of an abrupt climate change in which rising sea levels will flood many of the world's coastal cities and damage large areas of arable land."

(3) Bill McKibben, "The Coming Meltdown," The New York Review of Books, January 12, 2006: "Arctic sea ice is melting fast. There was 20 percent less of it than normal this summer, and as Dr. Mark Serreze, one of the researchers from Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, told reporters, 'the feeling is we are reaching a tipping point or threshold beyond which sea ice will not recover.'"

 
I'm not even a Sting hater (vastly underappreciated bass player among other virtues), and I think this may be the most ridiculous picture ever taken. In the history of photography.

Monday, June 04, 2007
 

(Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

This is how much I admire Richard Serra's sculpture, only a little of which I have actually seen in person: since I heard, a week or so ago, that a major retrospective of his work is being mounted at MOMA, I have been seriously considering going to New York this summer just to see it. Here's some of why I like it so much:
The public's perception of Mr. Serra's work has also obviously changed from the bad days of "Tilted Arc," a quarter-century or so ago. That same vocabulary of curved, giant metal walls, once vilified as art-world arrogance, is now better understood and broadly admired. This is how radical art operates.

In Mr. Serra's case you can also call it democratic art because it sticks to pure form that requires no previous expertise to grasp. There's no coy narrative, no insider joke or historical allusion or meta-art theme. There's none of what Mr. Serra disdainfully calls, in the show's catalog, "post-Pop Surrealism," by which he lumps together all contemporary art that leans for a crutch on language and Duchamp.

Bravo, Mr. Serra. Bravissimo.
The art is about the basic stuff of sculpture, isolated and recast: mass, weight, volume, material. What matters in the end are your own reactions while moving through the sculptures, at a given moment, the works being Rorschachs of indeterminate meaning.


 
While checking out the "The Best Novels You’ve Never Read: Sixty-one critics reveal their favorite underrated book of the past ten years" (link via Counterbalance), I came across this article by Peter Carey about being a young would-be writer:
And here is what seems most insane—young and not-so-young writers take out student loans to get M.F.A.'s in creative writing. This does not add up. I once taught in the M.F.A. program at Columbia, and so I know the extraordinary gifts that student debt can confer. But the Marshian in me says it's impossible to start a life committed to literary fiction when you are $60,000 in debt. The very size of the loan assumes there is a market, a business to go into, a living to make. But the hard truth is that only a sucker writes literature with the intention of making money. This was so obvious in Australia in 1961, you never needed to say it. Today, when people seem to be breaking through all around you, it might be good to bear in mind that the only reward you can rely on is in the work itself. And, of course, they do know that. A while ago, I went down to Strand with my then 13-year-old son and we were, of course, selling books and we watched the buyer separating the sheep from the goats, without understanding which was which. When the judgment was made, he pushed back at us a pile of really good novels. These, it turned out, were the goats. I said, "But surely you can sell Rohinton Mistry." And he said, "We don't need fiction." And I thought, Where am I?

...But those twelve students sitting round the table have to forget way bigger things than money. In particular, they must forget that they're walking out onto the same field as Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Austen. This should be enough to stop anyone. Of course, it never has been.

And:
...they're still those anonymous people you see on the 6 train, reading Bruno Schulz. You’ve seen my students. You've thought, Is this a teacher, a barman with a taste for literature? One day you'll be reading their book, maybe, but for now, as the train does that violent chiropractic jerk between Grand Central and 33rd, the only thing that is clear is that these young writers are unstoppable. No one reads fiction anymore? Says who? We are living in the middle of a roar of literature. The national newspapers are performing the surgical removal of their book-review pages like slick lobotomies, but the fiction writers continue like so many thousands of song-and-dance Rasputins who refuse to die. They’ll be there when we wake from this dark time and realize what all those "true stories" have really been...


Sunday, June 03, 2007
 
I've been engaging in a slow-motion screening of early Godard films, and it occurred to me last night why it's been slow-motion rather than eager and swift.

Breathless (1960), a favorite film of mine, is a parody/critique of the hard-boiled thriller. Good enough. Alphaville (1965), a parody/critique of science fiction films, is fun if a bit tedious. A Woman is a Woman (1961), is a parody/critique of American musical romances of the fifties. The one I watched last night, Le Petit Soldat (1963) is...a parody/critique of the spy thriller. And yes, the whole parody/critique stance has gotten tiresome. I lasted fifteen minutes with Le Petit Soldat before putting on the decidely non-parody/critque The Bourne Identity, a thoroughly enjoyable confection that made my evening much easier to bear than if I had stuck with Godard.

(I will say that Godard's plainly un-self-conscious My Life to Live (1962) is the best of the lot so far after Breathless. Cleverness, I'm afraid, has its limits, even for an uber-smart-guy like Godard.)

Thursday, May 31, 2007
 
Longtime readers know I devoted a fair bit of space on this blog to issues regarding New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Though I've had a strong desire to travel there since the hurricane, I have never really been sure what I would do, exactly, once I got there, so the wish has never become more than a wish. Fortunately, a friend of mine recently visited New Orleans and sent me these pictures, a description of what he and his wife ("M.") saw, and permission to post it here.
Some people play golf when they retire. Some travel. Some build elaborate, expensive model train layouts. M.'s 73 year old father, in contrast, decided that he would prefer to spend his golden years building houses in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. At his invitation, we went to see him this past Memorial Day weekend.

All I can say is I am shocked beyond measure. On our drive to my father-in-law's house in the Ninth Ward, we caught our first glimpse of the devastation on a freeway overpass. I saw what appeared out of the corner of my eye to be orderly rows of tired but otherwise normal, wood frame houses dating to the turn of the last century. However, something was amiss--the windows on all of the houses were gone, and the streets were empty. Then I saw the spraypainted code on the front of each home in the now infamous "x" pattern, indicating who had searched the home, the date of the search, and whether any bodies or pets had been found inside. We then dropped down to street level and I noticed the the trash still piled up everywhere, the rotten roofs, crum­bling foundations, and post-apocalyptic silence all around. Dead schools with marquees frozen in time announcing the commencement of classes in August 2005. Dead parks. Dead gas stations. Literally hundreds of dead streets and dozens of dead neighborhoods.


However, for me, that was not the most jarring sight. Coming from Irvine, what was really shock­ing were the dead box stores and mini malls, dead fast food chain outlets, dead movie theaters, and other dead trappings of suburbia in the outskirts of the Ward where M.'s dad lived -- the blue collar union neighborhoods that were once thriving and far better off than the lower Ninth had ever been. I can't tell you how eerie it was to stand in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart -- yes, even Wal-Mart hasn't come back -- and see only weeds and hear only the wind. Or the Church's Chicken, Taco Bell, Burger King, and other fast food signs still touting special combo meals in front of steel skeletons. It was literally like I had wandered into a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. I can understand poor housing not being rebuilt nearly two years after the storm (although it makes me angry), but Wal-Mart?


But the kicker was when I visited what had been the neighborhood immediately below the levy that failed in the lower Ninth. Hundreds of homes were literally wiped clean from their founda­tions and swept into oblivion. I drove down streets that were completely devoid of houses.

I have attached some of the pictures I took to try and convey the sense of irreversible loss I wit­nessed. I did not shoot the dead streets of homes because they did not photograph well -- they just looked like rows of houses unless you looked closely at a given home. Suffice it to say, however, that the photos don't do justice to the situation the people who have remained behind now face (250,000 out of a pre-Katrina population of 500,000 remain). There were encouraging signs -- white FEMA trailer parks everywhere, especially in the parking lots of dead mini-malls, and trail­ers in front of many homes slowly being rebuilt by their owners. But I fear that unless the Bush administration does something soon, there is not enough incentive for many people to come back. Apparently, former residents commonly e-mail each other and promise to return only if other neighbors do the same. And who can blame them? I saw many people literally sitting in front of their ravaged homes on the porch of their cheap, generic trailers (purchased, incidentally, by the federal government for $70,000 apiece -- I wonder who owns the trailer company? Bush's cousin?), staring into space, looking like they were wondering where everybody had gone. Most neighborhoods only had a few people around -- people I started calling "pioneers" because it was as if they were camping out on the moon. The overall feeling was unbelievable sadness. When I shot the attached pictures of the dead po-boy stand, a man came up to me and said that the place had the best sandwiches in town before Katrina. He then said the area used to have a vibrant, thriving community, and that on "any given Sunday, you could walk up to any house in the neighborhood, a complete stranger, and get a free meal." He said there were only 500 people left in an area the size of University Park, Turtle Rock, and Woodbridge combined, which explained the dead elementary school across the street. He said he had hope, but his sad eyes told the real story as he walked away down the dusty street.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007
 
From an article about Graham Greene on the island of Capri:
On Capri, he said, "in four weeks I do the work of six months elsewhere."

Case closed. Writers must sit alone at a desk and write--that's the only way the books get written, and Greene wrote a great many, including 26 novels. "The End of the Affair" (1951), "The Quiet American" (1955), "Our Man in Havana" (1958), "A Burnt-Out Case" (1961), "Travels With My Aunt" (1969)--portions of all of these were written in the bare, whitewashed study at Il Rosaio. If you need further proof that the connection between Greene and Capri was essentially utilitarian, consider this: Though he wrote copiously while he was on the island, dutifully turning out his minimum daily quota of 350 words ("One has no talent," Greene perversely insisted, "I have no talent. It's just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time"), he never once used Capri as material for his fiction.


 
Here's an article about writers' favorite fonts (via Arts Journal), including this rather catty remark from highminded potbolier writer Andrew Vachss:
Fancy fonts are fine for blogs, just as calligraphy is fine for diaries.

My favorite font used to be Courier, and I used it in workshops far longer than any of my peers did. Finally, I decided I wanted manuscripts to look slick, so I fell in with a font called Bookman which I eventually lost in one computer transition or another, leading me to ubiquitous Times New Roman.

 
Kobe Bryant has asked the Lakers to trade him. All I have to say is good riddance.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007
 
Liars, gadflies, and war criminals. Or, my recent reading of the New York Review of Books.

--Janet Malcolm on Allen Shawn's memoir (subscription required):
Those who have been lied to are especially prone to compulsive truth-telling.

Allen Shawn was born into one of those postwar upper-middle-class families where nothing is what it seems. The parents were Jewish—but not really Jewish. The mother was depressed— but always cheerful. A daughter (Allen's twin) was autistic—but not acknowledged to be, and then sent away. The marriage was troubled (the husband had a mistress)—but appearances were kept up. If the family habit of lying gave Allen Shawn his taste for truth, it had less desirable consequences as well. "The secrecy itself and the atmosphere it created are surely relevant to the evolution of my phobias," Shawn writes in a passage about his father's double life (of which he didn't learn until he was almost thirty) and its sometimes comical complexities: "It wasn't uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend four or even five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life."

--Larry McMurtry on Gore Vidal (and other things):
Gore Vidal has...a prose style that should be the envy of the dwindling few who realize that prose style matters, both for the glory of it and also because if one makes one's living mainly by the making of prose sentences, as Gore Vidal has, it's nicer if the sentences are strong, supple, and pleasing. And his are.

...As a rule I don't keep magazines—if I did I'd need a new barn for them...

...Meanwhile, though, he's written nearly fifty books, which means sticking to one's seat and bearing down.

[Vidal writes] "...when one lover goes into shock at the news of his death and another mourns him to the end of his life, we have moved far beyond sex or eroticism and on to the wilder shores of love, and shipwreck."

--Mark Danner, with one of the best "short" summaries of how we got where we are in Iraq that I've seen:
Nearly four years into the Iraq war… the consequences of those early decisions define the bloody landscape. By dismissing and humiliating the soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army our leaders, in effect, did much to recruit the insurgency. By bringing far too few troops to secure Saddam's enormous arms depots they armed it. By bringing too few to keep order they presided over the looting and overwhelming violence and social disintegration that provided the insurgency such fertile soil. By blithely purging tens of thousands of the country's Baathist elite, whatever their deeds, and by establishing a muscle-bound and inept American occupation without an "Iraqi face," they created an increasing resentment among Iraqis that fostered the insurgency and encouraged people to shelter it. And by providing too few troops to secure Iraq's borders they helped supply its forces with an unending number of Sunni Islamic extremists from neighboring states. It was the foreign Islamists' strategy above all to promote their jihadist cause by provoking a sectarian civil war in Iraq; by failing to prevent their attacks and to protect the Shia who became their targets, the US leaders have allowed them to succeed.


 
Less time online = less blogging = more living

Last month's computer troubles--which kept me offline for several weeks--has been a blessing in disguise. Not such a heavy disguise, either, as I could feel the relief even as the machine was in the shop. I've gotten into the habit since then of leaving my home computer off except when I'm using it. I used to leave the computer on from morning until bedtime, and the temptation to constantly log on overcame me at irritatingly regular intervals. It's amazing how much time--how much of your life--you can waste in twenty minute intervals. In consequence, however, I'm not blogging as much. Blogging is sort of a natural by-product of my web surfing, and as I don't surf as much, I don't blog as much. I wish I were blogging more, but I have a stronger wish to have a life offline.

During that month of enforced offline-ness, I discovered some wonderful things. Like having less anxiety, more free time, and best of all, better concentration. Those three things have fed on one another, too, as the free time allows me to read long, complicated magazine articles and books, the activities that made me want to blog in the first place. And to play music (on musical instruments, not on the stereo). And to not feel like life was nothing more than an endless rush.

The hurried electronic pace of modern life is a literature killer. More generally, it's a contemplation killer. This is not a trivial loss, as literature, and any kind of contemplation, are meant to nourish one's life in ways that aren't possible at the clicktrack speed of technologies fueled by marketing, advertising, political doublespeak, and all other forms of dishonest speech. Contemplation is great in and of itself, but it's even better when it also feeds into a life with other people, something that's just not all that easy to do while glaring at a computer screen all the time. There is something very accelerated about the web compared to the printed page, in spite of what some prophets of the frazzled online life say. Reading a book or magazines or a newspaper for an hour is qualitatively different from reading the web for an hour. The printed page doesn't come with email, or "breaking news" about Lindsey Lohan, or Flash films about nothing, or an iTunes soundtrack. These past four years online almost made me forget what it was like to move at my pace, not someone else's.

Every blogger knows that running a blog takes a lot more time than it looks from the outside. Which isn't to say I've lost interest in blogging. It's just that, if you've noticed a recent decrease in the volume of my work here, you noticed correctly. Who knows, maybe my increased time away from the computer will give me more to say as a blogger.

Saturday, May 26, 2007
 
There's a Jacques Rivette retrospective going around the country, and I keep missing it. When I was in Washington, DC, at the National Gallery, I saw that there had been showings of his extremely long movies at the East Wing theater a few weeks before I got there, and recently I saw that there had been screenings in Portland at the The Northwest Film Center. Then again, maybe I'm lucky that I missed them, as Rivette is known for his really long run time. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum reviews a Chicago screening of Out 1, which comes in at...twelve hours. There's also a four hour film made from the same footage, called Out 1: Spectre:
Out 1 and Out 1: Spectre are philosophical parables about solitude and community in and around Paris during the spring of 1970; they share the same source material, but Spectre's tone is quite different -- closer to nightmare than comedy, a poetic evocation of a frightening void rather than a void filled with people. For me they're the most profound films ever made anywhere about the utopian dreams of the 60s and the disillusionment that followed.

Planned as an eight-part serial for French state TV, which refused to air it, Out 1 was screened once as an unprocessed work print at Le Havre over two days in 1971 -- a legendary event -- and then disappeared for the next 18 years. Rivette spent most of a year editing the footage into Spectre, but he wasn't making a digest: certain shots from one version appear in the other with radically different placements and meanings. Spectre, which opened in Paris in 1974 and screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center early next month, was my first encounter with the material. It's only a third the length of Out 1, but, ironically, it's the more difficult of the two. Seeing both versions together is a revelation.

I saw Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse which, as I pointed out recently, was not just precisely four hours long but also spent a lot of that time showing us Emmanuelle Beart naked, as an artist's model. Nice. It had really good things to say about being a crazy artist, too. See it, if you have the chance.

The longest film I ever saw in a theater was Bertolucci's 1900, which I think was four hours, with an intermission. I don't remember being bored by it at all. Quite the opposite. On the video screen, besides La Belle Noiseuse, I've also seen the four hour version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, and I remember thinking that the first three hours were a masterpiece ruined by the contrived final hour. But it's been a while since I've seen it, so who knows what I'd think about it today?

Thursday, May 24, 2007
 
Finally, I had something to contribute to the great Overheard Lines.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007
 
Narrative seems of critical importance to everyone--everyone--in ways that, much as they are loved, music and visual art and poetry aren't. Our lives, after all, are narratives, and we understand them that way.

One article says this:
Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

And crazy-genius novelist Richard Powers says this:
Reading is solitary; reviewing is the shared solitude of reading. As throughput accelerates and the cost of information falls, engaged seclusion and slow reflection become more valuable. Changes in technology change the terms of this contest, but not the stakes. Like any good crisis, this one can only be resolved through narrative – the turbulent act of figuring out how to read what’s writing us.


Monday, May 21, 2007
 
Al Gore has another new book out, called The Assault on Reason:
...Mr. Gore writes not just as a former vice president and the man who won the popular vote in the 2000 election, but also as a possible future candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 race for the White House, and the vehemence of his language and his arguments make statements about the Bush administration by already announced candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton seem polite and mild-mannered in contrast.

I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but for the last couple of years I’ve been thinking not just that I wish Al Gore would run, but that we need Al Gore to run. And this is coming from someone who is so sick of politicians and their greasy "charm" that I can hardly stomach to even look at any of them, whatever their party.

Sunday, May 20, 2007
 
I see that Ann Patchett actually hated James's The Wings of Dove almost as much as I did, only she's too polite to say so:
Suffering is often good for us in literature. I just read "The Wings of the Dove," and it has about 400 of the most excruciatingly boring pages and then 150 pages that are transcendent beyond imagination. When I was saying this to people, they said, "Couldn’t you just skip the first 400 pages?"

I say we just name rubbish when we see it, even when it makes us look insufficiently snobbish.