Tuesday, March 29, 2011

This is what I'm talking about

The most interesting take so far on the year's most boot-stomped movie, from HG brother blogger Christian Lindke at "Cinerati.

The movie is visually stunning, but it shares more with Scorsese's Shutter Island and del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth than it does with the expectations its advertisements create. It is a film of sorrow, hopelessness, loss, despair and the role that fantasy plays in dealing with these powerful emotions. The movie's tagline is "you will be unprepared" and I have never read a more apropos movie tagline. Most people think a tagline like that hints at a narrative twist in the movie, and there is one, but in this case the tagline is telling the viewer that the film's trailer isn't truly preparing the viewer for the experience.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Chip Kidd on the new Murakami cover

Going to be looking at this one for a long time....A complicated construction, as Kidd explains, consisting of a binder cover with part of the image and and translucent vellum outer jacket with the rest.

(For the uninitiated, "Q" in Japanese is a homophone for the number "9")


Sunday, March 27, 2011


Ann Beattie:

I started reading DeLillo pretty much when he started publishing. He was, and is, one of my heroes. I remember that I was working on a very early draft of a novel when I got Libra, and I read the first sentence and thought, I can quit right now, or I can try to forget I ever read this.


Take that, movie-making scum!

The reviews of "Sucker Punch" (here and here) are so sneeringly negative, I'm actually starting to feel sorry for Zach Synder, of all people. It's a truly terrifying spectacle, an epic-scale, $100 million version of the public humiliation all artists have to be willing to risk in order to dredge something up and offer it to the public. The critics function as the enforcers/playground bullies in this after-school pile-on; exorcising their own free-floating embarrassment -- the timidity that led them to play it safe as critics rather than take chances as creators. Wouldn't blame any budding filmmaker who read these notices for deciding to change careers on the spot. I blush for my former profession.

A critic who does occasionally take chances:
"...["Sucker Punch"] is not convincingly feminine. (Imagine a boy playing with dolls as if they were tin soldiers.) ... It’s bloody but without menstrual awareness; just as its musical pretext neglects to express genuine feminine trauma or yearning. The girls are like Charlie’s Angels—featuring Scott Glenn as a guardian—doing a 'Kill Bill' remake. Fatally, 'Sucker Punch' has no divas. ... Despite their little-girl-wearing-Mommy’s-make-up stylization, these actresses aren’t fierce like the icons in '300.' This neuters Snyder’s video-game logic into a kid’s game."
And the most interesting taker on the film so far, from HG brother blogger Christian Lindke.
The movie is visually stunning, but it shares more with Scorsese's Shutter Island and del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth than it does with the expectations its advertisements create. It is a film of sorrow, hopelessness, loss, despair and the role that fantasy plays in dealing with these powerful emotions. The movie's tagline is "you will be unprepared" and I have never read a more apropos movie tagline. Most people think a tagline like that hints at a narrative twist in the movie, and there is one, but in this case the tagline is telling the viewer that the film's trailer isn't truly preparing the viewer for the experience.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Brutal takedown of Swedish crime novelists

Now, this, from this morning's WSJ, is really something. I usually ignore the politics of popular fiction writers, finding the effort to pay attention to them no more rewarding than the search for good prose... But really...

Steig Larsson:

...cartoonish tales of sinister capitalists doing battle with righteous journalists and anarchist hackers
Henning Mankell:
A fiction writer's politics are rarely disqualifying and often add subtle moral complexity to a plot (again, think le Carré). But Mr. Mankell, who was deported last year from Israel after he participated in the Gaza flotilla fiasco, seems to care little for nuance. Indeed, the Bad Politics in Fiction award in 2010 almost certainly would have gone to his "The Man From Beijing," a jaw-dropping apologia for the genocidal rule of Mao Zedong.

Those Chinese artists who died during the Cultural Revolution might ultimately be Mao's responsibility, we're told in the novel, but mass murder was certainly "not his intention." And the book's Maoist heroine is appalled when she spots an American chain restaurant in China's Forbidden City: It's one thing to deliberately starve millions, but to eat that junk?

"The Man From Beijing" also turns its attention to Africa, offering a uniquely stupid defense of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, a man "constantly and brutally attacked in the Western media."
The rest:
The region wrestles with very real threats from religious extremists—just last year, a failed suicide bomber in Stockholm and an assassination attempt against a "blasphemous" cartoonist in Copenhagen. But somehow that theme doesn't turn up in crime fiction from the school of Mr. Mankell, Ms. Marklund or the popular Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø.

Instead, the Scandinavian detective will likely continue focusing on the "criminal capitalists" (Larsson's phrase), mustache-twisting businessmen and omnipresent women-haters. Mr. Mankell, the former Maoist, has taken to heart the Chairman's dictum that all art must be politically useful or it is bourgeois decadence. "The Troubled Man," so full of detective-who-plays-by-his-own-rules clichés, fails mostly because it plays by very strict ideological rules.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lit Whisperer

From a review by Edmund White of a new edition of Ford Madox Ford's "Parade's End."

Early on in [Ezra] Pound’s career, before World War I, Ford had played a decisive part. Ford was living in a village in Germany and Pound came to visit with his first real book of poems, Canzoni. Pound was twenty-five and arrived in Giessen wearing a green shirt with glass buttons. Ford was thirty-eight. The older man couldn’t bear the artificiality and pretentiousness of Pound’s poetic diction. As Hugh Kenner puts it in The Pound Era:
The summer was the hottest since 1453. And into these quarters marched jocund Ezra Pound, tendering his new book that chaunted of “sprays [to rhyme with ‘praise’ and ‘rays’] of eglantine above clear waters,” and employed such diction as “hight the microcline.” Ford saw that it would not do. The Incense, the Angels, elicited an ultimate kinesthetic demonstration. By way of emphasizing their hopelessness he threw headlong his considerable frame and rolled on the floor. “That roll,” Pound would one day assert, “saved me three years.”
Ford fervently believed—and persuaded Pound—that a writer should write “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say.” Indeed Ford’s prose, more than that of any other writer of his period, sounds spoken. As he said in 1938 about his much earlier collaboration with Conrad, he tried to evolve for himself “a vernacular of an extreme quietness that would suggest someone of some refinement talking in a low voice near the ear of someone else he liked a good deal.” This could just as easily be a Jamesian precept and in our own day Colm Tóibín (especially in The Master and Brooklyn) seems to be subscribing to this hypnotic practice.
The Master turns out to be a novel about the last days of Henry James.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Something we can all agree on:

Hugh Laurie in praise of America...


Imax engagements already sold out


Cricket Valley

By way of LA Observed, a lovely ESPN.com piece about the San Fernando Valley cricket scene.

Around the time "Lagaan" came out there was a fair amount of loose talk about going over there to check things out, watch some matches. But of course we never got it together.

These small regrets are starting to add up, for me. Settling to the bottom of the cup.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

"It's a flesh wound!"

Adam Roberts has his head up his politically correct European ass on "Taken", but he approves of PJ, so I'm willing to let this error slide for the time being. He should watch himself in future. It's the worst possible black mark against a critic, in my view, if what's inside his head is more vivid to him than what's on the page or screen or iPod.

I especially like Robert's description of "the salmon-leap vocal line of ‘The Words That Make It Murder.’" Even though he's misquoting the lyric. And by so doing missing the Olde England note struck by "maketh." In the sense of "cause." The line is either a quotation from a hymn or Harvey wants us to think it is.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

He's smarter than you

As with all great scientific discoveries, the first practical application of "The Gandhi Neuron" will be in porn.

The scientists are of course still arguing among themselves. For the rest of us, these observations are metaphors conjuring up a "world picture," like the Elizabethan's humours. As a rebuke to nihilists the possibility that empathy has a concrete and measurable analog in the brain seems wonderful.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back to the Memory Palace

"What is familiar is not known." That was a favorite expression of one classics-oriented tutor at my alma mater. The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson puts it more vividly: "Living in a cave does not make you a geologist."

Ericsson is one of the world's leading experts on the subject of expertise -- what it is and how to get it. He's the editor of the 900-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, though his conclusions have also been boiled down into a business magazine article that is digestible even by the likes of me.

One key finding is that factors such as IQ (and pretty much all other vaunted forms of innate ability, except for the physical gifts of athletes) have almost no bearing on how quickly or to what level expertise can be acquired. What matters most by far is what Ericsson calls "deliberate practice," which almost always (even in seemingly exceptional cases such as Mozart or Bobby Fischer) turns out to adhere closely to the 10 years/10,000 hours rule. {"Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.")

"Deliberate" is the operative word: you can flub around playing mediocre golf for 30 years, but your game will only start to improve if you focus purposefully on identifying and correcting flaws. So writing teachers whose only advice is to "read a lot, read everything," may have been steering people wrong all these years. How you read could be just as important. People training for marathons don't just go out and "run a lot." They set schedules that include days devoted to speed, days devoted to distance and days devoted to pace, with days of rest in between. Tiger Woods famously spends entire days practicing a single problem shot. The quality of teaching and coaching is said to be crucial, as well, not least so that a practitioner can learn to identify his own flaws and graduate to "coaching himself." Editing is the obvious parallel in my area. Good editors improve not just writing but writers -- suggesting that the the current norm of editors who don't bother to edit could be having deleterious effects on the entire culture.

On the whole I find this encouraging. One knows one is not a genius, after all, but perhaps achievement of some kind is possible anyway. There is also little evidence, apparently, that age is a barrier. More good news.

Later I happened upon an article in the New York Review of Books that made me wonder if the recently discovered brain quirks known as "mirror neurons" could be exceptions to Ericssons' exclusion of in-born traits:

In a chapter boldly entitled “The Neurons That Shaped Civilization,” Ramachandran invests the famous “mirror neurons” (discovered in the 1990s) with remarkable generative powers. The mirror neurons that have been identified in the brain serve as the mechanism of imitation, he suggests, in virtue of their ability to react or “fire” sympathetically, and thus affect consciousness, when you are watching someone else do something: some of the same neurons fire both when you observe the performance of an action and when you actually perform that action. This is held to show that the brain automatically produces a representation of someone else’s “point of view”—it runs by means of mirroring neurons an internal simulation of the other’s intended action.

Observing that we are a species much talented in the art of imitation, Ramachandran suggests that mirror neurons enable us to absorb the culture of previous generations:
Culture consists of massive collections of complex skills and knowledge which are transferred from person to person through two core mediums, language and imitation. We would be nothing without our savant-like ability to imitate others.
The mirror neurons act like sympathetic movements that can occur when watching someone else perform a difficult task—as when your arm swings slightly when you watch someone hit a ball with a bat. For Ramachandran this specific neural circuitry provides the key to understanding the growth of culture; indeed, the mirror neurons are held to permit the evolution of language, by enabling imitative utterance.
What if an excess in the mirror neuron area (or a defect in the "special inhibitory mechanisms" we need to "keep our mirror neurons under control") could help account for the exceedingly fine grained imitative ability of a great actor, or of a writer whose dialog is uncannily authentic, or of a draughtsman who with a single pencil stroke can evoke the shape of a tree branch or the curve of a woman's hip? Must also enter into our response to those productions, with an excess perhaps nudging upward the work of the greatest critics.

How weird would it be if critics, those ticks on the dog's rump of art, turned out to be among the few people on earth who could legitimatly be described as talented?

UPDATE: The parallel drawn above between "reading a lot" and "running a lot" doesn't work. The real comprison would be with a guy who thinks he can learn to write by piling up pages. So how would a budding writer pursue reading as a form of deliberate practice? Studiously, perhaps. You read George Higgens not just to savor his flavorful dialog but to figure out how he does it. Because it is, after all, a trick. None of the guys who are noted for this (Higgens, Leonard, Price) gets these passages by turning on a mental tape recorder.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NSF...whatever you've got


If you actually watch it (as I finally did) it's all talk and no shock. Not what one expects from the divine Yo-Landi.

(Perfectly SFW if you have headphones.)



"He punches the radio and a bombast of classical music pours out and he hits it again – this radio with a mind of its own – and lucks out on a commercial station and wondrously, miraculously, there, pouring from the speakers in all its thrilling optimism and sexual emancipation and gold hot pants comes that song – and all the aggrieving rage hisses out of Bunny like a leaky valve, the boiling heat drains from his face and he turns to his son, knuckles his head and says, ‘Whoever said that there isn’t a God is full of shit!’"
                               -- Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro


Friday, March 11, 2011

Yet another British rant about how SF is ignored...

Better than most, actually. Stephen Hunt is a writer of big fantasy books who was infuriated when a BBC show about genre fiction, part of its coverage of something called "World Book Week", didn't mention SF even though it pretty much sneered at all the other genres. As he put it:

I am a genre author, and I live in that world. In my world there is only one genre permitted access to the oxygen of publicity in the mainstream media, and that genre is contemporary fiction. It is also called literary fiction by its supporters, just to underscore the point that anything that isn’t written in their genre can never be classed as literature or improving or worthy. It’s a neat little semantic trick, isn’t it? Reduce the denotata to its root and you end up with Fiction-Fiction. So good they named it twice. Before I even begin writing my tawdry fantasy novels I’m only ever half as good as them by definition.
He starts off with an unfortunate reductio, though. I think you know how I'd answer:
Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that polo, show jumping and grouse shooting are the only sports considered decent to be aired on TV and radio. You open the sports pages of newspapers to find page-after-page of coverage of how many birds a group of investment bankers have blasted into feathers over the glorious twelfth. No football. No cricket. No car racing. No rugby.

Imagine a world where those in charge of broadcast programming have decided that popular music is no more, only chamber ensembles and other improving music forms are to be permitted. No more Kylie. No more U2. And Take That? Okay, stop laughing. Just the likes of Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet, or Beethoven’s Septet for Wind and Strings are to be found on the radio. You turn to the music recommendations in your weekend newspaper and all you discover there are interviews with two hundred hopeful Tuvan throat singers short-listed for the new X-Factor.

Imagine a world where you turn up to the cinema hoping to watch Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible feature, maybe switch on the goggle-box to catch up with a little Coronation Street, and all you find playing are twelve screens and seventy channels of Freeview showing François Truffaut’s L'Histoire d'Adèle H. and Ingmar Bergman’s Sommarnattens leende.

How happy would you be?


A Celebration of Die Antwoord

Wheelchairs, this time, but no anime. I doubt the world would be ready for that.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Celebration of Daft Punk

French people who are never seen without masks and play dance music with synthesizers? Poseurs? Never!

Because they made this, for which I will always forgive them their flaws... The pinnacle of old style anime and pre-9/11 nostalgia. (Sorry for the obnoxious advertising... Patience...)



Sunday, March 6, 2011

Anne Marsen

New York Times article.

Audition tape:

Human After All (feat. Anne Marsen) from jacob krupnick on Vimeo

It's the looseness that puts it over. Even the most acrobatic gyrations seem relaxed nd casual. Limbs rubbering around inside the baggy clothes. No grinning or mugging. The joy is in the movements.


The book of 150,000 words begins with the first 100

Anthony Trollope is taken as the supreme example in Western letters of shoehorning a productive literary career into a busy life, rising early to write for two hours each morning before putting in a full day as an official of the British postal service. Before his death at the age of 67 he produced 47 novels that are still read for pleasure today.

The Japanese novelist Banana Yoshimoto can top that. According to her Wikipedia bio, she has produced ten bestsellers on a work schedule of only half-an-hour a day.

Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, famously wrote up to 10,000 words per day and died at the age of 38, probably of exhaustion. Nowadays hardly anybody reads him. Need we say more?


Friday, March 4, 2011

Just because

From time to time the barely controlled adolescent inside me surfaces... My apologies. You can find more of this here.

Like this:


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

As I was saying....

All three pounds of the second volume of The Kingkiller Chronicles landed with a crash on my front doorstep last night, and I face again the problem of the big book fantasy series -- the four year (in this case) gap since my reading of volume one. And since (unlike most of these series --which I approach with hope followed by irritation, boredom, and depression) "Kingkiller" is one for the ages, I need to find a way to reenter the long-forgotten narrative.

Patrick Rothfuss has dealt with this by posting on his blog a brief summary in the form of a comic strip. Charming and probably enough, although as Rothfuss rather harshly puts it: "If you really can’t remember what happened in book one, you should probably re-read it. Most of what’s in there is pretty important to the story, y’know." Well, in some other life, maybe.