May 27, 2004
Poor Apple

"My mother turned down every fantastic movie there was," Gwyneth Paltrow told W magazine. "She turned down these amazing things that would have made her a huge movie star." Blythe Danner's daughter hinted that she might follow the same path: "I might not work for ages," she warned in the June issue. "There are certain women in this business who have children, and I just think, 'You must never, literally never, see them.'"

I guess she changed her mind. Daily Variety reports today that Paltrow will produce and star in a film based on the life of Marlene Dietrich. DreamWorks optioned the memoir of Dietrich's daughter, Maria Riva.

May 24, 2004
Thought for the day

"Then, there is the matter of Julie Delpy, a stern reminder that the first duty of a film critic—the sole qualification, to be honest—is to fall regularly, and pointlessly, in love with the people onscreen. Once this stops happening, you might as well give up and get a proper job."

—Anthony Lane, Nobody's Perfect

May 22, 2004
Slightly odd thought for the day

"The peripatetic Ferguson is a little hard to classify. He's an economist, but
with a political bent and a flair for the well-turned phrase. He's a shrewd observer of current events, but deeply informed by the past. Armed with impressive credentials -- professor at NYU, research fellow at Oxford -- but conveniently young and photogenic, he is emerging as the Nigella Lawson of international affairs."

Ted Widmer on Niall Ferguson

May 21, 2004
Thought for the day

"Speaking here in my capacity as a polished, sophisticated European, as well, it seems to me the laugh here is on the polished, sophisticated Europeans. They think Americans are fat, vulgar, greedy, stupid, ambitious and ignorant and so on. And they've taken as their own, as their representative American, someone who actually embodies all of those qualities."

Christopher Hitchens on Michael Moore's Cannes "triumph"

May 19, 2004
Nature vs. nurture, decided

I have the cover story today at The American Spectator. It details the sad story of David Reimer, the boy who was raised as a girl in an experiment heralded as proof that there are no differences between men and women. The reality was quite different, however, and the tale has come to a sad conclusion:

David Reimer committed suicide on May 4. He was a blue-collar worker in Winnipeg, the Canadian city where East meets West. David lived a quiet life: fishing with his father, backyard barbecues with his wife and kids, tinkering with cars. If this were all there was to the story, his death would be sad but not tragic. Except that David Reimer -- born Bruce, later known as Brenda -- was sacrificed to the strange god of post-modern sexuality...[More]

May 17, 2004
KJT on dead tree

I have a feature article in the just-released Spring 2004 issue of Doublethink. This is a print publication, but thanks to the glories of the web, you don't need to find a copy to read it.

The subject is the death of the short story. Once even magazines like Cosmopolitan published award-winning, quality fiction:

These, of course, weren't trashy tales of Manolo Blahniked single women deciding between Richard, who has a house in the Hamptons, and Tad, who prefers Martha's Vineyard. Mademoiselle published William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and Ray Bradbury. (Perhaps you've heard of them.) Harper's Bazaar published John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, and Patricia Highsmith. (Imagine one of Highsmith's gruesome tales being published alongside the Gucci ads today.) Booth Tarkington was published by McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, and, yes, Cosmo.

“What kind of man reads Playboy?” an ad for the magazine once asked. The answer was a man who liked to read. Alongside airbrushed nubiles, one found fiction by Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Italo Calvino. Could the “readers” of Maxim even pronounce such names?

That's part of the history. Read on to learn about the present (rather depressing) and the future (somewhat promising) of this American institution.

I talked to a number of writers who had very thoughtful things to say on the subject—you should at least read the article for them. I found it particularly exciting to talk to Greg Hollingshead, who is one of Canada's most highly regarded authors and something of a larger than life figure at the University of Alberta, where I started my post-secondary education. It was also fun to interview up-and-coming writer Maud Newton, who runs an excellent blog on literary topics.

(For the old-fashioned types, the PDF of the entire issue is also available.)

May 10, 2004
The love of the Jackal

Literary agent Andrew Wylie writes an informative article for The Washington Post on why he became an agent, how book superstores came into being, and marketing authors internationally.

He argues that if publishers care about the bottom dollar—and they all do—they should actually look to serious writers:

Thirty-one years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, 16 years after the publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls -- but only one year before the first publication of Calvino's Il Barone rampante and Faulkner's The Town -- in 1956, in the United States, the bestselling writer by far was Grace Metalious. Her name is now barely known. She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless. Her publisher has disappeared.

The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide. Who made the better investment?

Wylie seems so likeable:

When I first approached the publishing world, looking for a job as an editor in 1979, I assumed that because I'd been a student of literature, and my father a book editor for 20 years, I would intuit the rules of the game and land a job without difficulty. In one interview, I was asked: "What have you read recently?" "Thucydides," I replied. "How about James Michener? Or James Clavell?" the editor said. Clearly, I was not qualified for the job.

You would have no idea reading the column that Wylie is nicknamed "the Jackal" and has also been called "a card-carrying shit" and "a lizard." For the real dirt, you should read this Guardian profile from last year.

wylie.jpg

In his Post piece, Wylie explains how he made Salman Rushdie's name. What he doesn't mention is that to impress Rushdie and secure him as a client, he signed Benazir Bhutto, whom he had no interest in otherwise. He employed Martin Amis' cousin to help sign that literary star.

In fact, and the Guardian doesn't mention this, his poaching of Amis ruined a friendship: Amis' agent of 22 years had been Pat Kavanagh, wife of Amis' best friend (and fellow novelist) Julian Barnes.

Wylie may be singlehandedly responsible for huge advances for literary authors—he secured $1 million for Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet and £500,000 for Amis's The Information. Quite something for someone who for a number of years "slept on someone else's floor, drove a cab and took amphetamines."

To hear him speak in the Post, Wylie only signs authors he wants to read. So it may be a surprise to find that he represents Madonna's publisher:

Wylie looks pained. "Nicholas came to me," he says, "and said, 'We're doing a series of books with Madonna.' I said OK. He said, 'There are gonna be five books,' and I said, hmph. He said, 'Would you like to sell these internationally?' And I said, probably not. He said, 'Why don't you read them?' And I took them on vacation and read them to my daughter, who is nine, and she liked them."

How laugh-making, darling!

My latest Brainwash column is a review of Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies. I caught a showing of the movie at Filmfest DC last month; it should be released widely in the U.S. this summer.

I quite enjoyed the film, but the soul of the book seems lost. Beyond Waugh's comedy is usually tragedy, but not in this adaptation.

Whenever seeing a movie made from a novel, I always wonder at some of the cuts. Certainly, cuts must be made. But sometimes they don't make sense. Balcairn meets a tragic end in both versions of the story, for example. But in the novel, it seems even more so, proved needless after the fact. Why was this cut from the movie? It would take only seconds to show.

Still, Fry is well known as a funny man, and his wit is well served in this very sparkling movie. And as I mention in the review, some of his own lines actually (gasp!) add to the fun.

May 09, 2004
Lodge on Nabokov

Novel of character, roman à clef, campus novel, epiphanic short story, postmodernist metafiction - Pnin contains elements of all these fictional subgenres, but ultimately it is sui generis, uniquely and quintessentially Nabokovian, having a family resemblance to his other works without being exactly like any of them.
David Lodge, master of the genre himself, calls Nabokov's Pnin one of the first campus novels. It started out as an "insurance policy" against the likely difficulties in publishing Lolita, and ended up establishing his reputation as a literary force to be reckoned with.

Irish gothic

Neil Jordan has just published his first novel in ten years. It won't be released in the U.S. until September, however. Shade is about a woman who doesn't recognize that her guardian angel, with her since childhood, is actually her future ghost. The Irish director is hardly known here as a fiction writer, although he wrote stories before he made movies.

In this Guardian interview, he touches on something about which I've always been curious: Why do so many bad movies get made? I don't just mean bad movies, but bad movies which don't find any audience at all. I can usually tell from the trailer whether or not a movie will tank. If I can do it, why can't the experts—the director/screenwriter/studio executives?

Some of his own films have been wildly successful, others not: he says that he is still no clearer than he ever was (and, he implies, neither is anyone else, really) about which films will take off and which won't. 'All you can do is make films you would still want to see in a few years.'
So I suppose I'm just as confused as ever.

In any case, what is Jordan working on now?

He hopes and intends to write another novel but, in the meantime, he is working on two film projects: a small-budget adaptation of Pat McCabe's Breakfast On Pluto and a much bigger budget, Hollywood movie for Sony Pictures about a child who discovers a monster who helps him grow up (and slightly more alarmingly, grows up with him).

Thought for the day

"I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that."

—Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

May 08, 2004
Sad news

James Dixon, hero of his memoir, Lucky Jim, died last month. You can read an obituary here.

May 07, 2004
Society watch

"At age 45, Susan Robinson never had a manicure, rarely wore makeup and even dyed her own hair at home."
Imagine, dying your hair at home! This woman really was in need of an "ultimate" makeover.

May 06, 2004
Thought for the day

"To love with all one's soul and leave the rest to fate."

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

In search of an author

From The Hindu, news of what sounds like an enticing documentary. Stone Reader, described as a "love poem to reading," follows filmmaker Mark Moskovitz as he searches for the reclusive author of an out-of-print masterpiece of a novel—who has written nothing else since.

He contacts several people who might have a clue to Mossman's whereabouts: the literary critic whose blurb provoked Moskovitz to read the book in the first place, the artist who designed the cover jacket of Stones, Mossman's contemporaries at a writers' workshop, his literary mentor whom the book is dedicated to and so on. I am not going to reveal here whether Moskovitz finds Mossman or how his literary quest ends — that would spoil the suspense that the film is so careful to build. What I can reveal is the process, the journey, before he arrives at the end of this most wonderful and unusual quest. In trying to hunt down a one-book writer, "Stone Reader" becomes a film that also illuminates the reading life...

There has not been, so far, such an uncompromisingly literary documentary. It fulfils a fantasy that many book lovers have had: to see a movie where the camera sensuously caresses books. The camera dwells lovingly on bookshelves, there are close ups of book covers and their spines, the title page and the endpapers. And readers are seen fondling their favourite books.

I was happy to find that Stone Reader is available on DVD. But not so happy to find that it has a list price of $39.95, although it is available online for less than $25. That is a two-disc set; you can get a three-disc version from the official site, for $39.95.

(link via Maud Newton)

Travesty

For once, I'm practically speechless. Brad Pitt may be the next Mr. Darcy. Keira Knightley has already accepted the role of Elizabeth Bennet in a new film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Pitt has nothing on the always intelligent Colin Firth. (Not to say he can't act—he was great in 12 Monkeys.) And it's impossible to imagine how this new version could come anywhere close to the absolutely perfect six-hour BBC presentation from 1995.

I ask, simply—What's the point?

May 05, 2004
Bam!

Cooking: not for the faint of heart.

I think the problem with cooking is that you've seen people cook on television, or somewhere, and you have a sense that it's supposed to come natural, that you should be able throw together a meal and it will be good. Well, you can't throw together food and have it be good unless you know what you're doing. It's like playing guitar or piano. You can't just sit down and play music. You've got to know what you're doing. Americans don't like that. They want instant celebrity, instant success...

Cooking is not subjective. Most of cooking is very objective. There is a science to it. There is a right way and a wrong way.

What a breath of fresh air, from Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook's Illustrated magazine. Thankfully, he gives us normal folk some tips:
Nobody preheats their pan properly. One solution is to take a little vegetable oil and put it in the pan. It'll shimmer first, then it'll start to smoke — just a wisp of smoke, and it's ready.

Ninety percent of all problems on top of the stove are caused because people don't preheat their pan properly. They'll get a medium pan and throw the food in, it'll stick, and it'll be a disaster. People are afraid of using high heat when it comes to a real sauté or a stir-fry. You need a lot of heat. Heat browns, among other things, but people are afraid of it.

People won't check to make sure they have all the ingredients, so, for example, the cream cheese will not be at room temperature by the time they go to make the cheesecake — everybody makes that mistake — which means that when you put it in the standing mixer it doesn't whip properly. It doesn't incorporate enough air and you get a dense cheesecake...

People don't have the key ingredients so they substitute something else. They're supposed to have Dutch process cocoa and they put in natural cocoa, which in some cases can make a big difference. Failure, actually, in devil's food cake… It's all sort of fifth grade stuff, but people don't do it.

Read on to discover how he became the man who sometimes ate sixty things a day.

May 04, 2004
Say it ain't so

Some things are just better left unknown. Ralph Fiennes as Count Laszlo de Almásy in The English Patient is one of cinema's greatest romantic, tragic (in the correct use of the term) heroes. What you might not know is that Michael Ondaatje, the author of the supposedly unfilmable novel from which the movie was adapted, based his character on a real person. Sort of.

From a Calgary Herald story by Richard Brooks published Sunday, and not available online:

English Patient's real lover was a gay Nazi

...A book to be published this month will detail the real life of Laszlo, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film based on the novel, who was a very different character. He was not a count and he did not have an affair with a beautiful married Englishwoman. His true lover did die tragically but he was a Nazi soldier killed by a landmine...

Ondaatje has said that his account was not supposed to be a history lesson but instead "an interpretation of human emotions -- love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace."

His use of Almasy intrigued John Bierman, a former BBC foreign affairs correspondent.

"What's odd about Ondaatje's book is that he chose a real person for Almasy and yet made him so very different from what he actually was," said Bierman. He raised the matter with the author but received no response.

Thought for the day

"[L]ike trying to manage a Maserati when you're used to a Ford."

—David Bailey, on his marriage to Catherine Deneuve

May 03, 2004
What a plum

Finally—an author profile that isn't a puff piece. The Telegraph article titled "Bergdorf b***h" is anything but. Plum Sykes is a 34-year-old Vogue contributing editor and the author of her first novel, Bergdorf Blondes.

The girl originally from Kent, UK, describes her book as "an Oscar Wilde type souffle. It's the Breakfast At Tiffany's for 2004." I'm not sure whether we can believe her, however:

I ask her if she compares her work to The Great Gatsby?

"Yah," she replies, "and the other works by Truman Capote."

The book sounds just great, too:
"It’s not an exposé!" says Sykes. "What was I supposed to expose, that society girls are adorable and funny?"

One old friend of Plum's tells the Telegraph, "Some rich, vacuous Americans are beguiled by proximity to Anna Wintour, and she suddenly sees herself as important."

Considering all the press she's been getting (and that $625,000 advance), perhaps one can hardly blame her.

Very educated "sofa-bound misses"

I sometimes despair of the future of fiction. Will people soon stop reading serious books? But I'm thinking of fiction in English. A.N. Wilson has a slightly different worry about the state of our minds:

When I first went to a London language school a year ago and said I wanted to learn German properly, I was their only client who wanted to do so for the purposes of reading. They had plenty who were being sent to Zurich or Frankfurt by banks or law firms and who needed to be able to speak fluently when they got there. Rather fewer people were queueing up to be able to understand the operas of Wagner or get their minds round Hegel or enter the mighty mind of Goethe.

It makes me feel like a swot and a prig saying that the thing I most passionately want to do before I die is to catch up on lost time and read the great works of European literature in their original languages. I know I shall fail, but I want to try. All our forebears tried to do this.

Most Britons who deemed themselves educated could read at least one foreign language. I am not hoping to be as clever as Queen Elizabeth I who, when the students of Oxford greeted her with Greek verse, could reply in that language, and who was fluent in Italian and French. But surely I might be as bright as those sofa-bound misses of the Byronic age who read Moliere and Tasso, and perhaps Goethe too... [More]

Goodbye Larry, Hello Linda

"Better stop calling them the Wachowski brothers," the New York Daily News reports. Apparently, Larry Wachowski is finally ready for his much-rumored sex change operation.

I've often wondered why there are so few great female film directors. Sofia Coppola was the first American woman nominated for a Best Director Oscar.

But perhaps all this explains why The Matrix sequels weren't anything as good as the thoughtful original.

Wagner the prophet

Perhaps the most interesting philosopher alive today has written a book on one of my favorite operas. Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde was reviewed in The Guardian this weekend:

"Death-Devoted Heart is a book on music, tragedy, love, sacrifice and redemption. It is partly a brilliant critical/theoretical study, partly a manifesto for a new religion. It's a rare case of a philosopher really telling you what it's all about."
Surprisingly, Scruton seems to argue that art can replace religion. He recognizes what so many others before him have: life without a supernatural purpose seems meaningless, but belief in the supernatural seems impossible after the Age of Reason. For Scruton, a sublime opera about death and redemption could be the answer. Tristan, he says, "offers the final proof that man can become holy with no help from the gods."

Scruton writes, "By accepting death through an act of sacrifice we transcend death and raise ourselves above the mortal condition."

Hmmmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

Thought for the day

"I deny from the outset that nobody lives in sunlight, that all relations are rapacious, that one must eat or be eaten."

Isaiah Berlin