Archive for November, 2008

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It Was Dead When I Found It?

November 21, 2008

Three months into my own blog here, a friend sent me the article “Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004.” The article was published in Wired a month ago, so not only am I behind the times on mentioning it here, but (as the article proclaims) I’m behind the times in general:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.

Writing a weblog today isn’t the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It’s almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, though I’ll admit that the blogs I’ve come to read most regularly are indeed ones by professional journalists (hardly cut-rate ones, I should emphasize) who augment their fine work for leading newspapers with postings online — I’m thinking of Sarah Weinman’s enviably terrific blog, and Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes, and Short Stack from the editors of the Washington Post Book World. In each of these cases, fans of literature will be enlightened daily by what these critics are offering in terms of news, reviews and insights. 

That said, I’ve been thinking about my own blog here a fair amount — realizing that unlike some of those sites above, I don’t entirely have a focus or a pattern of presentation. I hope that my few regular readers have enjoyed the postings, but I recognize that anyone showing up to the site on consecutive days may be puzzled by the schizophrenic nature of it: North Carolina literature one day, crime fiction the next? a film or two? an event listing? a stray writing exercise? Much as each of these can find a place in my own personal interests, I recognize that any sort of writing is a communication, and I’m not certain that I could define very precisely an audience that I’m aiming to communicate with or hoping to please. Would-be writers? People living in the D.C. area (my current home) and interested in literary events? Or living in North Carolina, where I’m from, and looking for news there? Am I aiming for a local audience or something broader? I’ll admit I didn’t think that through before jumping in feet-first, and especially with the “death of the blog” being proclaimed elsewhere… well, erroneous on Wired‘s part or not, it’s time for some clarity of purpose or else I may find myself drowning in my own words.

To that end, I’m hoping not necessarily to change what I’m doing but to systematize it a little. Last Monday featured an interview with author Nani Power, for example, and this Monday brings another interview with a major player in modern crime fiction (stay tuned — it’s a great interview!); and I’ve got a third talk lined up with another fine novelist. Can Monday become Author Interview Day?

And if that works, what defines the other days? I’m working on it, and hope to regularize things soon — adding an “About This Blog” to the page listings to the right.

Thanks for patience with schizophrenia in the meantime.

— Art

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Rawi Hage At George Mason University

November 20, 2008

rawi-hageLast-minute announcement here on my part: Tonight — Thursday, November 20 — award-winning novelist Rawi Hage, author of DeNiro’s Game, will be reading at George Mason University. DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s first novel, followed two young men during Lebanon’s civil war, and the book won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award as well as both the McCauslan First Book Prize and the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. Hagi will read with novelist and short story writer Madeleine Thien at 7:30 p.m. in Research I, Room 163, at Mason’s Fairfax Campus. 

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Fall for the Book Announces Poster Contest

November 19, 2008

The Fall for the Book Festival, based at George Mason University, has announced a poster contest — inviting artists to submit designs for a poster that will become a cornerstone of the festival’s annual marketing campaign. The deadline for submissions to the contest is February 1, 2009; the festival itself takes place September 21-26, 2009, at Mason and at select locations throughout Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland.

The winning entry for the contest will receive $300, and the winner will have his/her work displayed not only on Mason’s campuses but throughout the D.C. metro area.

For complete guidelines on the contest, visit www.fallforthebook.org

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An Interview With Nani Power

November 17, 2008

Nani Power‘s first novel, Crawling at Night, earned the kind of attention and honors that most debut novelists would surely envy: Named a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, it was also a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the British Orange Award, and has ultimately been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains, was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year as well as a finalist for The Virginia Library Award, and her third, The Sea of Tears, was praised by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fine yarn of the lost and lonely seeking intimacy and love.”

feedthehungryThis fall saw Power shifting genres with the publication of Feed the Hungry: A Memoir With Recipes, a book which begins with her childhood in Virginia and follows her adventures — culinary, familial, romantic and more — around the world: to Mexico, Peru, Rio, and Japan, with Power both broadening her cultural horizons and delving deeper into an understanding of herself. By book’s end, Power is urging readers toward journeys similar to her own, not only “tasting” the world out there but also savoring our own histories: “Start remembering what you ate as a child,” she writes, “ask people what they ate. Their stories start to tumble out as quickly as the memories of food, because they are all intertwined, food and memory, love and taste, all piecemeal of this lovely, sensual world we live in.”

In the Washington Post review of Feed the Hungry, critic Carolyn See wrote: “In Feed the Hungry, Power gives us the story of her family, along with the misunderstandings, the tragedies, the resentments that dogged them for as long as she can remember. The metaphor for all this restless longing is… food: what it means to all of us, how we present it to each other, what we especially crave and value, how it becomes the ultimate symbol for who we are and what we want to be, as well as what we want, or love, to eat.”

Power recently took the time to answer some questions about the new book and her writing in general.

After three novels, what prompted you to write a memoir?

I actually came about this book as an attempt to write about food. I’ve always loved cookbooks. They seem to have a storytelling quality when I read them — jottings of good times, tastes, cultures. Then, I started thinking about my favorite family recipes and how they intertwined through the tales of my family. As that materialized, I realized I also wanted to try and understand the reasonings and flaws of my family. As I wrote, I understood more of their fragility and the ephemerality of our lives — and food personifies this. A moment of a taste, a sensation, and then, gone. Recipes attempt to capture those moments.

The book avoids strict linearity — a straightforward “this happened and then this happened” narrative. Individual chapters don’t necessarily proceed chronologically (Chapter 7 is Peru 2003, for example, while Chapter 8 is New York 1990), and even within chapters you often flashforward and flashback, mixing together stories from different parts of your life. Can you comment on your use of these time shifts?

I guess you have really clued in to what really interests me stylistically in writing. And I suppose I shouldn’t say style because that implies a superficial mechanics, perhaps. What I strive to do — what interests me — is exactly the shifting and transformative nature of memory. Memory, at least as I can percieve it, because it is so subjective, appears to be the essence of fiction, an inaccurate and impressionistic blanket surrounding our minds. What makes one memory take precedence over another? And how they are woven in our daily consciousness, jumping to the surface with various markers — smell, déjà vu, sounds, and of course, back again, food. Eat something you ate as a child and the sensation is forcibly retrospective.

I find that what happens in real life distinctly breaks many of the “rules” of writing craft that we are taught, and I’d like to find a way to create a more of a sensual expression of this experience called life for the reader — merging time and place, shifting point-of-view, even bringing in major themes or characters late in the story. Playing with these ideas interests me a lot.

One of the book’s richest and most persistent themes is about how various cultures meet and mesh or clash: different worldviews from generation to generation, different nationalities or ethnicities meeting and greeting, even that scene where you compare your house to your childhood friend Nono’s, with its “refrigerator crammed with soft drinks and Cheez Whiz.” Is this a theme you explicitly set out to explore, or a pattern that emerged in the writing?

Oh, this is something that fascinates me endlessly — the merging and intertwining of ancient cultures and American modernity. I love the suburbs actually — strange, isn’t it? I grew up in the country and the suburbs were frowned upon as artificial and plastic. And yes they are, in a delightful way. To me, the suburbs reappropriates life and repackages it in a rough yet poetic sense. Restaurants that are theme parks of various cultures. Small ethnic food stalls amidst strip malls with mainstream Dollar shops and grocers. Immigrants in Costco buying burlap bags of Basmati rice and giant frozen boxes of pigs in a blanket. It is in the suburbs that we see the meshing and evolution of new cultural terroir. 

To a great degree, your experiences make you who you are. Is it your experiences that give you the best knowledge and perspective (of self, of world)? Or your writing about those experiences that offers the greater wisdom?

Writing offers a sense of completion. One can explore the family as a separate whole, and thus gain a compassionate new view of the workings. A writer must view a character in all their dimensions, and as you do this to your own family — I mean take the time to remove the reputation, the biases — and see the person as a human, you gain an immense sense of understanding. I think everyone should write a memoir in their life, even if it is never shown to anyone. The main word to remember in memoir, that I tell my students, is “witness.” To tell the truth as you knew it. Whether you wish to share it with the world is your choice. The benefit in the end is very personal.

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Bond Reborn As Bourne?

November 16, 2008

14quantumxlarge1That’s the big question that seems to be running through all the recent (and largely negative) reviews of Quantum of Solace these days. Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post began her review with the statement “It took two men to kill James Bond: Austin Powers and Jason Bourne” (and she makes a good case for that thesis), and Peter Travers over at Rolling Stone said: “Bond seems to have come down with a serious case of Jason Bourne penis envy, leaping across rooftops from Bolivia to Haiti like a jug-eared Matt Damon.” Making a comparison between the first Daniel Craig Bond movie and the latest, Pajiba critic Ted Boynton notes that “where the foot chase scene opening Casino Royale offered bold, steady tracking shots showing mesmerizing stunt work and flinch-worthy hand-to-hand combat, Quantum too often trots out the nauseating Quake-o-Vision style of The Bourne Supremacy.” 

True, it’s hard to miss all the similarities to the Bourne movies, from the protagonists’ driving passions in each case to those rooftop scenes to that frenetic editing. (Revenge is a great plotline, no matter what, but that editing was really way over-the-top, not just derivative of the Bourne movies, but Bourne done bad.) But while the new Bond film may have been influenced by the skillful artistry and tremendous success of the Bourne trilogy, I don’t think that you can simply conflate the two characters or these movies. The Bourne trilogy may have provided the impetus to revitalize the Bond franchise, but that’s a good thing (and I say that as a longtime fan of the full series) and it’s certainly provoked the filmmakers to examine Bond a little more closely as a character — a real plus for these films, and something that the new film’s harshest critics seem to miss. Has Bond become “little more than a deranged, if well-dressed, serial killer,” as Hornaday claims? Or is Pajiba right in discussing “Bond-as-blunt-instrument,” elaborating that “Craig’s Bond is an expensive, unpredictable super-weapon, and as with a nuclear missile or a biological WMD, nasty collateral consequences nearly always occur when he is deployed”?

While Pajiba may provide the more nuanced (and ultimately more politically persuasive) position, I do think that there is some attempt at exploring psychological motivation here — again slightly influenced by Bourne but exciting and illuminating in its own right. While we know how revenge motivates Bourne through parts of the trilogy, we as viewers are not sure here exactly what’s driving Bond: Is it revenge for what happened to Vesper at the close of Casino Royale? Is he pushed ahead by allegiance to the Crown, looking after the best interests of the British Government even after that government seems to have turned his back on him? And in a related subplot with Felix Leiter (played by Jeffrey Wright), what are the ultimate responsibilities when ideas of personal integrity and morality conflict with political and institutional policy? 

I won’t argue that Quantum of Solace delves very deeply into these questions — a much better moral thriller along those lines is something like Michael Clayton from last year — but the film does keep those questions up in the air almost as often as Bond himself is up in the air, jumping those rooftops or hanging from scaffolding or piloting that burning plane. (And to that end, it’s worth noting, of course, that the film also succeeds as a nearly nonstop thrill ride.)

Some of the movie’s final scenes (spoiler alert) begin to examine more completely Bond’s motivations and the potential for his emotions to color his decisions or to impact his sense of duty. Of particular interest is a nearly dialogue-free scene between Bond and the equally vengeance-minded Camille (new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) huddled together as a hotel incinerates around them — importantly, the second building that has burned down around Camille. And a final series of scenes at the end extend that idea, with Bond tracking down Vesper’s boyfriend and then debriefing M (Judi Dench) in snowy Russia with a forced sense of detachment, a pair of encounters whose resolutions provide a sense of closure without being too pat or predictable. And with questions about Quantum still up in the air at the end of this installment, there’s promise (surprise surprise!) of more layers of this storyline opening up in the next Bond. Mark your calendars now for Bond 23 in 2010?  

— Art Taylor

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