June 21, 2013

Soulless vessels of pure appetite, both ravaged and ravaging

These lines excerpted from a review in the New Yorker for a movie I'll likely never see - World War Z. Neither horror nor zombies nor end-of-the-world storylines do much for me but it not being my kind of fildoesn't mean I don't read about such movies...
...the hectic density of modern life; it stirs fears of plague and anarchy, and the feeling that everything is constantly accelerating. At times, it has the tone and the tempo of panic.


The undead really do keep on coming; they are taking over our bookstores, our movie theatres, our cable channels. Every neighborhood has a zombie or two. Are they what we fear we might become if we let ourselves go—soulless vessels of pure appetite, both ravaged and ravaging? Do they represent our apprehension of what hostility lies behind all those blank faces in the office, at the mall, across the dinner table? 


The zombies aren’t like us; they are us, just degraded a little. And what the zombie media splurge may unconsciously express is not just a fear that people might become hostile but a desire to be free of the crowd—to “decrease the surplus population.” Calling on Freud hasn’t been much in vogue in recent years, but asking for a consultation about the zombie obsession—why do we long for what terrifies us, doctor?—might not be a bad idea.

P.S. Shortly after reading the above review, I ran into this link in the NYT: The Zombie Apocalypse:

“I’ve never seen a zombie movie where someone drank from a puddle and died of explosive diarrhea.” 

This dude is talking about real zombies here, not the movie kind.
Believe him, most people in a zombie apocalypse would die not from zombie wounds or anything as sexy as that. They’d die, he explained, from the lack of a clean-water supply. And as anyone with even passing familiarity with his books “The Zombie Survival Guide” and “World War Z” knows, the biggest risk in a zombie invasion is fluid loss from all that running.

He has...
lectured at various army bases on zombie preparedness. He’s a zombie laureate, our nation’s lone zombie public intellectual, touring everywhere from Long Island to Ireland to Sugar Grove to prepare humans for the coming zombie plague.  

Whatever! I do not get the fascination with zombies, vampires, or ghosts! But maybe like Denby wrote, the zombie is us! 

P.P.S. And shortly thereafter, I see this in The Atlantic!
How and When Will the World End?
Giant meteors, an expanding sun, the retirement of Barbara Walters, and more

Really? Life is so uninteresting to people that they keep worrying about zombies and end of the world scenarios so much? Or is it that the movies have taken over our imagination to such an extent?

P.P.P.S. Ran across another review of the movie, this one from The Atlantic and not as raving as the earlier one in the New Yorker... but it also does mention that the appeal of Zombies & most post-apocalypse fiction  "is the underlying message that we deserve what we get".

And so it goes...

June 20, 2013

Like an LP among digitally embedded playlists

Since his death at age 51 of a heart-attack earlier this week, many tributes have been paid to James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano in The Sopranos... and though I never saw the HBO series, I enjoyed reading most of these tributes but none more than this one by Lee Siegel, author most recently of the book, 'Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly.
In this world of cacophonous confession, Tony was like an LP among digitally embedded playlists.
First on blogs, then on social media, people were encouraged to perform their privacy, to market their interiority. As a result, candor was not what it used to be. In the race to appear unique and appealing, we began to sound the same. Private expression, once on the marketplace, began to lose its authenticity.
Pouring his heart out to his shrink — magnificently played by Lorraine Bracco — Tony was a throwback to a time when your deepest thoughts and feelings defined your uniqueness because you so rarely shared them with other people, who seldom confided theirs to you.
Thanks to Mr. Gandolfini’s empathetic genius, Tony became an American creature teeming with an unmasterable inner life that could not be blogged, posted, updated or tweeted. Here, with unforgettable reality, was the whole human mess exposed by a person’s intimate self-disclosures — rather than concealed, as inner life often is now, by the very process of disclosing it.
Mr. Gandolfini’s artistic triumph was to create an asphalt monster with a tender, suburban side, to conjure up a gangster whose exposure of his own brutality offered a relief from our moment of increasingly impersonal social relations.

The beast that's lurking in the closet

Sad news for all of us who are fans of Alice Munro today to hear she will be "retiring" i.e. will not be writing much any more.

She is 81+ and so this day was to come even if she has continued to write till recently with such amazing poignancy ...all short stories but each word, each sentence weighs a ton! And cuts like a knife! A brilliant writer, no doubt and all the praise coming her way the last few years (including being called the Chekov of our generation) are well deserved.

If you have not read her stories, some of them are available for free (without subscription) at the New Yorker website.

In articles reporting this decision by Alice Munro, many refer to her1994 Paris Review interview, where she said that she was "panicked" by the idea of stopping, even for a moment:
"What happens in old age can just be a draining away of interest in some way that you don't foresee, because this happens with people who may have had a lot of interest and commitment to life. ... That it might is the danger. This may be the beast that's lurking in the closet in old age -- the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing."

There are very few interviews with Alice Munro that I have read over the years and so, I'll leave you with a more recent one from the New Yorker last year.

An empyrean way of digesting the surreal

Reading an article at the New Yorker book blog by Kelsey Osgood about Kafka for kids, these lines jumped out at me:
It's easy to brush aside traditional fairy tales and their modern retellings because we have lost our belief in the overtly fabulous, but what Kafka describes becomes more frightening to us as we age. We are sure, as mature people with 401(k)s and digital subscriptions to the Times, that we will never be stalked by an amorous, sparkly vampire, but we are not sure that we won't be charged and prosecuted for a crime we aren't even sure we committed...In this way — not the bloody, but the banal — Kafka's work becomes more spooky than the original Brothers Grimm, in which Snow White's evil queen is forced to dance to death in scalding iron shoes.


And though this might be taken as an argument for sheltering kids from Kafka, consider that the urge to avoid feeling fear altogether is stronger in grown-up humans than in small ones. “Grownups desperately need to feel safe,” Maurice Sendak said in 1993, “and then they project that onto the kids. But what none of us seem to realize is how smart kids are… they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something.” Perhaps Kafka’s works can be best confronted by children, who have that empyrean way of digesting the surreal and decoding symbols, who are braver, in their innocent beliefs, than we can ever be. 


June 14, 2013

Music for the day: Piano Love

Today, a few videos *ing the amazing Bill Evans on the piano...


My Foolish Heart


Like Someone In Love


Beautiful Love


 I do it for Love


Easy to Love


June 11, 2013

Music for the day: Tchaikovsky and Kissin

This video of a 1995 performance of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1 by the famous Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Enjoy! (Not sure who I am telling to enjoy as I don't think anyone really reads this blog. I'm just talking to myself here!)

June 2, 2013

An itch that has to be scratched eternally

Other than an occasional one, I do not have the time to read the actual short stories in Object Lessons: The Paris Review presents the Art of the Short Story but am really enjoying reading the introductions to the short stories which are typically 2-4 pages long but very enjoyable!

For example, yesterday I read David Means' introduction to Raymond Carver’s Why Don’t You Dance? Here is an excerpt:

A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally. It opens up a singular feeling forever in the reader that arises out of what seems to be a paradigmatic stance.We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life. All we’re given is a sliver of some wider existence, a collection of minutae, a shift of viewpoint, a statement made weeks later. The poetics of the modern story are both anachronistic (tapping old modes of myth and folklore) and contemporary (the pop song, the thirty-second commercial spot). One must -- as a writer and reader - crystallize deep meaning from a few, slight gestures: ........ 
…Raymond Carver brought an art form back into relation with itself. He moved the short story forward but seemed to be rehashing and digging up his style from some buried aboriginal source. James Joyce did the same thing in Dubliners. He reengineered the short story, solidifying it with a new type of lyric firmness. It might seem, because Carver’s style is so pristine, so simple-sounding, that the lesson of his work is that one should keep the writing clear and simple. It might seem that the lesson of his work is that one must revert to the Hemingway technique of cinematic reportage, zeroing in on the peak of the meaningful action and image while leaving everything else submerged. Maybe, maybe not. Carver’s style teaches us that the bare bones of a story - no matter how ornate or twisty a style might get - are always simple, rudimentary, and arriving from a deeply humane source. Heart and style and story must be united, somehow. In other words, you have to care, and care a lot. Fancy prose - wildly interesting mannerisms, snarky jokes, weird cartoonish futures - are all fine and dandy, as long as the bare bones come from a pure, honest, humane concern.
Later in the introduction, Means writes:
A good short story - any good story - is like one of the cave paintings in Herzog's movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The essential mysteries of the human condition, of the fact that we can make art at all, are reduced to a few strokes, a primal essence, bare-boned, stark, pulled out fo the dimness with the flickering light of a flaming torch, which in contemporary times takes the form of a highly sensitive, poetically minded reader flickering his/her soul - across the text.

Elsewhere, Means was not so eloquent in describing what a short story does:

Means, in a less elevated but equally eloquent manner, compared the form to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”—a short burst of energy that makes you want to reread, or replay, to capture that emotional feeling.

But Means, it seems, sure knows how to craft a great short story himself. I have not read any of his work to date but this article in the Paris Review talks about how "Means has delivered exquisite local portraits of the destitute, desolate, and disconsolate in postindustrial America" through his many short stories. Asked if he would like to some day move to the longer form and attempt to write a novel, he says:
Yeah, I'm tempted by the novel. Tempted is the correct word because compared to the demands of the story it would seem that the novel, all that wide-open space, would be enticing after four story collections. But what's not enticing to me is the idea of simply going big and wide for the sake of giving into the possibility of going big. I love novels, and I read them more than anything, but stories cut in sharp and hard and are able to reveal things in a different way: they're highly charged, a slightly newer form, and inherently more contemporary.

Big and wide can mean expansive and comprehensive, but it can also mean bloat. Novels often thin themselves out to a watery hue—some even start that way—and at times seem to only ride along the surface of things, giving us what we already know, reporting the news that is just news. Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news. I keep reading novels that feel, even if they're trying new tricks, like old news, and often resort to cliché to keep moving: out of the corner of his eyes, his heart was pounding in his chest, that kind of thing. Those books are just surfing along on a very small waves—reading them is like watching surfers on Cape Cod trying to catch whatever's coming in on a lame day.

I'm not at all interested in simply reporting what's here right now, or cranking out an entertainment device that's going to touch the widest number of people. I'm interested in digging and excavating as deep as I can go into those small eternal moments and how they expand out, or close in, on the lives of my characters. I lean towards the souls on the fringes of the corporate/industrial landscape, and some of those folks are mute, silent, close-lipped and don't say enough to start filling a novel. As a story writer, you have work with sharp but relatively small tools, the picks of metaphor, the shovel blade of images, the trowel of point of view, and then you delicately lift and brush in the revision with love and care knowing that one slip and you might damage an extremely delicate thing. In the end it has to be as solid as marble. But during the process it's like an ancient shard of pottery.

All of this just to say that, yes, I'm tempted still by the novel, but I'm happy to be working hard at stories. I could go on here to talk about how, paradoxically—and maybe I'm contradicting myself, but so what, like Whitman said, do I contradict myself, who cares, I'm an American, I have to hold multitudes—bloat can be good if it's interesting. A move from stories to novels for me would be partly a matter of not giving into the temptation to abuse the form.

It's a death trap to write something as a flight of fancy, or to sell more books. I was working on a novel a few years ago—I'm still working on it on and off—but then I began to write a story, “The Spot,” and it landed in The New Yorker and I was happy and shifted gears and continued to write stories. When I'm down—and even Alice Munro admits that at times she feels guilty for not writing a novel—I just start a defensive mantra: Blake never wrote novels. Whitman never wrote novels. Carver's work is still around. Franz Wright hasn't written a novel. And it's not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn't coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don't tell it, you'd better stand back because something's going to explode.

Brilliant! Makes me want to read some of his short stories but there isn't time for now. Instead I may just read these four reviews of Means' book of short stories, The Spot - 1, 2, 3, 4 - and make a note to myself to maybe some day get back to his stories. In the interests of time, that itch will have to be scratched some other day! I'll leave you with an interview with David Means in the New Yorker about this collection of short stories.

David Means’s short-story collection “The Spot"  is a stunning, often terrifying study of human motivation at the extremes of experience. Inhabiting settings that range from the dark plains of the Midwest, to the seeming order of suburbia, Means’s characters live at the meeting places of cruelty and mercy, criminality and victimhood. Three stories from the book, “A River in Egypt,” “The Spot,” and “The Knocking,” first appeared in The New Yorker. Means recently answered my questions about the American landscape, violence in contemporary culture, and Bruce Springsteen.

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

And just like that, my #NPM2018 celebrations end with  a poem  today by Emmy Pérez. Not one more refugee death by Emmy Pérez A r...